LULLABY FOR THE WORKING CLASS I Never Even Asked For Light (Saddle Creek)

Lullaby For The Working Class’ debut album "Blanket Warm", brought to Britain by the ever-clever folks at Rykodisc, was one of the unexpected surprises of last year: lush, warm mandolin-driven country sadcore which sounded like "Out Of Time"-era R.E.M. played by American Music Club (or vice versa), in exactly the same way this year’s dismal Mark Eitzel/Peter Buck collaboration totally failed to do. Barely a year later, "I Never Even Asked For Light" arrives to an expectant hush from the faithful. Has the magic evaporated?

Well, yes and no. True, "I Never Even Asked For Light" betrays signs of the dreaded substandard second album syndrome. You know the drill: a band spends years writing and arranging their set, bashed into a shape approximating perfection on endless pub tours in front of bored, inattentive audiences who’ve only turned out to see headliners Scrotum Clamp, or whoever. Then the A&R pen strikes, and the set gets quickly and economically taped to create the legendary debut album. A year’s worth of awards, plaudits and critical acclaim later, it’s time to deliver the second album. So captain, what you got?

I’m not suggesting that’s the case here, cynical old soak that I am, but bear in mind the example of Liz Phair, the American singer who played good Alanis Morissette years before Alanis Morissette had discovered how to sell x-million albums by playing bad Alanis Morissette. A year after her astoundingly good debut album "Exile In Guyville", her astoundingly drab second album "Whip-Smart" proved that, well, you shouldn’t rush these things sometimes. Her third, "Whitechocolatespace", is due any day now. It will be an interesting listen.

So, anyway, there are times, quite a few in fact, when "I Never Even Asked For Light" sounds, well, drab. There are songs which sound self-consciously over- (or possibly under-) written, the melodies too convoluted, the lyrics more worked upon and fretted over than is perhaps necessary. Or maybe not worked upon and fretted over enough. But Lullaby For The Working Class have set themselves impossibly high standards: "Blanket Warm" is one of the most staggeringly beautiful, effortless and fully-formed debut albums I’ve ever had the privilege of hearing. Much of "I Never Even Asked For Light" sounds awkward by comparison, as if these were the interesting, if not fully realised, early demo tapes that got the band their recording contract.

Despite all my carping, it’s still a Lullaby For The Working Class album, and therefore is licensed to contain moments of absolute genius. They are "Show Me How The Robots Dance" (don’t even stop to consider the title or its beauty will wrap it around your brain for days), the almost-rock of "Hypnotist (Song For Daniel H)", during which Ted Stevens repeatedly hollers the hookline of "I dreamed I was an astronaut", the recent non-hit single "In Honor Of My Stumbling", which I can’t listen to without being affectionately reminded of Dylan’s "When The Ship Comes In", for some reason, and the very AMC-like "The Sunset & The Electric Bill". So, "I Never Even Asked For Light" is merely a good album from a band capable of making fabulous ones. But any admirers of sadcore or contemporary country rock who haven’t yet discovered Lullaby For The Working Class’ greatness owe it to themselves to at least try to hear "Blanket Warm".


I was literally bouncing up and down with delight on discovering (via the marvellous All Music Guide website - the existence of a third Lullaby For The Working Class album, apparently never released in Britain. Their debut album "Blanket Warm" still stands - from cover art inwards - as one of the most astonishingly fully formed first passes I've ever had the privilege to audition, with its waves of terrifying and beautiful country-rock that sound like American Music Club or R.E.M. circa "Automatic For The People" writing a philosophy paper. If they fumbled a little with its hastily assembled follow-up "I Never Even Asked For Light" their sophomore effort still contained enough quietly reflective beauty to warrant investigation. So, having finally found this 1999 release, it was one hotly anticipated item.

And, as it turns out, one great disappointment. What has happened to Lullaby For The Working Class to make them sound so pedestrian and uninvolving? Two things, I suspect. Firstly, Lambchop have upped the ante in what bands can do with steel guitars, strings and brass sections and stirred a soupcon of Southern soul into the melting pot. In "Nixon" they have assembled the high watermark of alt-country recordings, and, naturally, it's a monumental achievement that casts a long shadow. And secondly, "Song" is the first Lullaby For The Working Class album to include printed lyrics in the packaging. On the page they read like prose, hamstrung and hampered by the abandoning of old-fashioned concepts like rhymes. It might sound like a petty complaint, but how could any band make lines such as "She insists from a bedroom in the attic that life is just a novel, the narrator - a clever voyeur watching the bed shakes its lovers caught blindly entwined under objective omniscient eyes" swing? The nearest comparison I can draw is the Manic Street Preachers' insistence on writing melodies around Richey Edwards' jagged, unexpurgated lyrics on their landmark "The Holy Bible" opus, except they just about managed to get away with it by mowing them down with equally angular and spiky music. On "Song" proceedings frequently veer towards the soporific, the band indulging in a tendency to use as few notes as possible equalled only by Mark Hollis' solo album. Which from a band with Lullaby For The Working Class' track record, is a terrible shame.