Sound — 8
Though the United States had been following the UK's lead in terms of indie rock trends for the first decade of the 21st century, the current garage/blues rock revival trend that's been on the rise for years has turned the tables: Band Of Skulls made themselves an Anglo answer to the rise of America's next wave of neo-retro rock bands, and Arctic Monkeys made the dubious switch to stompy blues rock after touring with The Black Keys (just a coincidence, huh?). But one of the more pure-spirited "p-ss off with your fame" garage bands from England would get the spotlight after the former Deputy Chair of the Labour Party in the UK, Tom Watson, wrote in his resignation letter - rather impertinently - his favorite band at the time: Drenge.
With Drenge being a brother duo of guitarist/vocalist Eoin and drummer Rory Loveless, one could summate them as the British equivalent of the Orrall brothers of the garage band JEFF The Brotherhood, both in terms of being a family band and being quite bare-boned with their rock sound. Their self-titled debut album (which came out just a few months after Watson gave them a shoutout) made a big splash, and the humble DIY feel of Drenge was a helpful injection of grassroots into the UK garage scene, which is still generally spearheaded by the popularly contrived.
But whether or not it's because more eyes and ears are focused on the duo, Drenge mainly show a desire to grow beyond their minimal rock sound in their follow-up album, "Undertow." Most cardinally, this growth is shown from building each song with multiple guitar tracks, as well as the duo adding a bassist (Rob Graham) to the band. With straightforward rockers like "We Can Do What We Want," "The Snake," "Side by Side" and "Have You Forgotten My Name," they carry over the band's garage grit while also amply stocking their sound to be meatier than anything on the slim-fitted instrumentalism of "Drenge."
But "Undertow" isn't simply about "harder, better, faster, stronger," and the album also shows Drenge broadening their stylistic horizon. The most prevalent experimentation found through the album are shoegazing influences - from the shiny guitar effects, vocals double-dipped in tracer-laden reverb, and permeating noise sections that helix in the punk rocker "Favourite Son" and the somber blues rocker "Standing in the Cold"; hell, the album even takes its first step into shoegaze territory with the droning "Introduction" that bleeds into the grungy/shiny "Running Wild."
As previously mentioned in "Standing in the Cold," the display of more emotional, slow-burning songs is also a new songwriting dimension shown on the album (one that's very contrasting to the sardonic sneering the Loveless brothers wholly invested in on "Drenge"), but while that track in particular still fits Drenge's aesthetic pretty naturally, the other morose cut on the album is manifested into the contemporary indie rocker "The Woods." Though it's not a bona fide stumble on the album (it does feature a bad-a-s bassline, among other things), its style does generate some friction with the band's apathetic demeanor towards their contemporaries.
Lyrics — 9
As unapologetically crass as Eoin was with his lyrics in Drenge's first album (which further established the uncouth gutter aesthetic of the band), few give the credit of Eoin's lyrics connecting at the bookends of the album; a small effort for a concept, sure, but a decent display of lyrical weaving, nonetheless. Eoin ups his game in "Undertow" by further flexing his interweaving lyrical style, which details a prolonged and set-to-fail fling between him and a former lover; though not in a conventional, linear concept. Though most songs are pretty standalone in their symbolism and message - like the ambiguous desire to run (towards or away from something?) in "Running Wild," the out-of-sync plight in "Never Awake," the two-against-the-world connection perceived in "We Can Do What We Want," and the biblical symbolism portraying fatal attraction in "The Snake" - most songs end up carrying a piece of the puzzle of the album.
These pieces come together in the tail-end songs, "The Woods" and "Standing in the Cold." By themselves, these songs paint the bitter ending of the album - a devastating breakup between the two in the seclusion of the woods - but in these songs, Eoin calls back several phrases, themes, and images from previous songs to give the seemingly-abstract bits their true context. The dream of being taken to the woods in "Side by Side" turns into a real occurrence in "The Woods," the recurring theme of memory loss also flares up again in "The Woods," and the ambiguous running first established in "Running Wild" reprises in "Standing in the Cold" and reveals its meaning ("I was running away / because I thought we were in love").
Overall Impression — 8
"Undertow" has Drenge improving in just about every department. The rock energy heard in the album is uncannily expanding to be bigger than the garage the Loveless brothers began in, and yet it doesn't come off like an unhealthy, steroid-esque growth, with the band's natural grittiness staying intact. And with Rory's improvement as a drummer, Eoin's elaborate and intertwining guitar parts, an imperative addition of bass and an expansion of sonic style, "Undertow" shows Drenge growing stronger than one might have even figured possible for a follow-up album. Perhaps the humble DIY disposition that gave Drenge's debut album its charm is being left behind in this growth, but better for Drenge to seize greater potential than to stay in the garage forever.