High Hazels have been slowly but surely been building a dedicated following, given a helping hand by stablemates The Crookes with whom they shared a manager and a major tour earlier in the year. The album is them striking out on their own and they do it with impressive aplomb. It's an incredibly assured debut album from a band that's found its own skin and is increasingly comfortable in it. They're not ashamed to tip their hat to their peers and borrow at times whilst maintaining their own sound and identity. It's a clever trick they pull off.
As you'd expect, their two singles Misbehave and Hearts Are Breaking are present and correct here and form the purest, most melodic introduction to the band, but they are really only the shell of this record and they're cunningly placed at 6 and 9 to ensure the listener gets a taste of the whole palate that High Hazels offer. They've noticeably left off all four songs from their April In The Half Life EP, which we like as all our favourite bands used to do non-album singles and b-sides.
The centre piece and undoubted highlight of the album is undoubtedly Hanging Moon. It's a minute longer than anything else on the album for starters. It opens with a solitary guitar and James' voice drenched in the late 1980s uncertain romanticism of Morrissey's Every Day Is Like Sunday as he laments "it's coming to the end of the reel, I still don't know how I feel". It's epic, full of big ideas, yet keeps its feet firmly on the floor as it picks at the corpse of a failed relationship
Coming close is Night Song, the perfect three-minute pop song, proving that pop can be about guitars, a big chorus and boys singing about emotional vulnerability - "bring me back to life, see me through the night, my walls are no more".
Although these two set the bar extremely high, the album is very much a series of peaks and the only trough being the slightly clumsy coupling of fermented with tormented and cemented in Banging On My Door, but that's a minor quibble as the lyrics on the rest of the album mark James out as one of the most gifted lyricists of his generation. There's no pretense to them, he writes from the heart and about real human emotion with a canny ability to match the words to the music his band mates create.
There's further potential singles aplenty on here. Opener Valencia and its tales of "drifting off into Spanish alleyways" maintains its own identity and actually surpasses the feel-good sensation of the previous two singles. No less radio-friendly but more melodic is Loneliness Inn recalling those beautiful early Richard Hawley albums, whilst How Long's It Gonna Be toys with loose elements of funk in its verses in contrast to its big chorus.
Along with the aforementioned Hanging Moon, Shy Tide represents the more reflective side of High Hazels' canon. It's fragile, almost on the edge of breakdown, a simple repetitive guitar strum accompanying James in the verses. Album closer Promenade hints at a more expansive future whilst remaining true to their love of harmonies and melody.
High Hazels is an unquestionable triumph. Plenty of bands release a debut full of great songs that all sound similar, but where High Hazels is different is that there's a rich diversity across the ten songs and it's cleverly track-listed so that it always grabs your attention with changes of mood and pace.
They've delivered on the early promise of those first two singles and live shows and surpassed expectations. It's the best debut album I've heard all year and high on the list of all albums.
High Hazels' official website can be found here. They are also on Facebook, Twitter and Soundcloud.