Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Album Review: No Anchor by Ship Thieves (by Omar Ramlugon)

When Chris Wollard first struck out on his own outside of the punk juggernaut that is Hot Water Music, he both flirted and subverted the trope of the punk thrasher delving completely into Americana as soon as they have a chance for a solo project. His first record, simply titled Chris Wollard & the Ship Thieves, had elements of folk, but also retained some of the rock crunch with which he had made his bones, giving some truly excellent songs like ‘No Exception’ and ‘All The Things You Know’. Although not received with quite the fanfare given to the solo efforts of his Hot Water Music partner Chuck Ragan, the album without question stood on its own.

The follow-up, Canyons, expanded the palette even further, making songs recorded with a full band the focus; although not perhaps as furious as something like Caution or Fuel For The Hate Game, it built upon and surpassed its predecessor, blending country-esque touches, punk and bar-brawling rock ‘n roll, with Wollard ripping some really rather excellent guitar solos to boot.

No Anchor, it could be argued, is the Ship Thieves album that they were always heading towards. It is the first to shear the ‘Chris Wollard’ part of the group’s name, and it completely axes any and all elements of rootsy folk, leaving behind a raw, uncompromising slab of gruff punk rock that arguably stands up to anything to which Wollard has previously put his name, and then some. It’s the sound of a band hitting their stride, captained by one of the best songwriters around today.

The dual guitars alternate between splintered, raging bursts of lead guitar and churning barre chords, stacking melody on top of melody in a way reminiscent of Horsebox-era Leatherface. Wollard himself hasn’t sounded this good in a while; although he’s not able to reach the high notes that he could in songs like Hot Water Music’s ‘Trusty Chords’, he’s not trying to, either. His rasping howl always hangs onto the melody, even when he is practically breathing fire, sounding both more furious and more furiously alive on this record than he has since Hot Water Music’s The New What Next. His lyrics, too, have a kind of curt sentimentality that bleeds a real emotional quality which is hard to achieve without coming across as overwrought. But he’s been doing this long enough that he skirts that pitfall with ease.

The album’s opener ‘Middle Man’ neatly sets the tone, as this is one of those records wherein every song seems to slot neatly into its own space within the forty-or-so minutes running time. It’s classic Wollard, being both raw enough to peel paint and yet underpinned by an underlying melodic sweetness that makes it endlessly repeatable, with a Kurt Vonnegut reference in its chorus as well as having a really rather excellent outro lyric that chides the listener gently; “There’s no sleep / There’s no worth / There’s no future / Living in the past”. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention that Wollard has an absolutely killer backing band, with ex-Quit member Addison Burns matching him guitar hook for guitar hook, and the rhythm section of Chad Darby and Bobby Brown gluing everything together in the way only a great drummer and bassist can, with Brown’s huge, battering drums serving as the gut punch driving the whole record.

And from there it doesn’t let up for a second; the title track turns the lyric “One hand’s gotta wash the other!” into a desperate clarion call, while the tuneful roar of Bukowski-referencing ‘Born Into This’ reminds us that we’re “Born into this, can’t ignore it / You’re born into this, then you blink and it’s gone.” If anything, Wollard’s age-weathered rasp lends a weight and gravitas to his delivery akin to Leatherface’s Frankie Stubbs in his later years, which is only a good thing. Later on, cuts ‘Something Is Missing’ and ‘MBJOK’ send shivers up your spine, with the former seeing Wollard deploy some electrifying screams and the latter’s gang vocals leading the charge on the outro.

Elsewhere, ‘Undertakers’ and ‘Ruts’ storm out of the speakers with fretboard torching solos, with ‘Undertakers’ being a little reminiscent of Hot Water Music’s ‘The Sense’, albeit written from an older, wiser perspective that treads old ground while at the same time reinvigorating it. It has to be said that allowing the extended soloing from Canyons to continue on to this record was a smart decision, as it really allows the songs to breathe and swirl in their own haze before winding up nicely.
The transition of this band’s name from ‘Chris Wollard  & The Ship Thieves’ to just ‘Ship Thieves’ was ostensibly to, in Wollard’s words, stop them from “[…] showing up at clubs that had no clue that we were actually a band”[1]. It could be argued, however coincidentally it may seem, that it represents more than that. Ship Thieves have found their niche and they sound confident, powerful and fully formed, with No Anchor serving as a rousing statement of intent. It’s a consistently excellent piece of work that reminds you just how influential Chris Wollard and his writing style remains on the modern US punk scene. Pick it up and see what you think.

PS; below is a link to one of the album’s best cuts, ‘Born Into This’ – if that whets your whistle, then pick up this record with all haste. 

Stream No Anchor here:

Like Ship Thieves here: