Apart from perhaps Tiny Engines, no other label came close to Black Numbers last year, in my eyes at least. Every release (and I honestly do mean every release) was of the highest order, stretching the whole gamut of punk and indie-rock. Choke Up’s ‘Black Coffee, Bad Habits’ is the label’s first release of 2015 – and in a pure act of bravado is as good – if not better – than anything they put out last year.
Reminiscent of last year’s break-outs Pup and The Hotelier, Choke Up play serrated and intelligent indie-punk that commands your attention from the off. More direct than the aforementioned acts, with the punk element very much pushed to the fore, ‘Black Coffee, Bad Habits’ is still littered with hooks buried deep beneath the bluster.
One thing that instantly stands out is the power and range of the vocals. Occasionally similar to the slurred delivery of Conor Oberst (in fact, Choke Up have been compared to Desaparecidos, and vocally, at least, it makes perfect sense) or Titus Andronicus’ Patrick Stickles, they switch frequently from a gentle, Americana croon to a passionate, rabid wail. Throw in loads of gang vocals and some great interplay it ensures there’s always plenty of depth and personality. Musically, Choke Up are on the money too, recalling everything from Strike Anywhere’s politicized scuzzy blitzes to the meandering indie-rock of Signals Midwest. It’s anxious and frazzled and permanently on the edge of disaster – yet is brimming with pop sensibilities, swathes of melody and some bloody fantastic choruses.
That the four guys from Boston manage to stay on the right side of chaos without collapsing into a messy heap is often astonishing; take ‘KC’, for example. The song morphs from being a brutal punk blast, strips everything back to allow some great gang vocals to come to the fore before breaking out into an all-too-brief call-and-response section, then settles into a jangly emo/post-rock style outro. Stylistically, it’s a triumph.
‘Coldest Brew’, ‘Marcher’ and opener ‘Wildflower’ are all similarly fractured, yet no less exciting, while the more straight-up pop-punk songs of ‘Crosses’ and ‘1301 Las Vegas Blvd’ show what they can achieve when not throwing every conceivable idea into the mix. The lyrics to ‘1301 Las Vegas Blvd’ might be a little sappy, but for the sheer likeability factor, it just about gets away with it.
And, just when you think you’ve got a handle on Choke Up, they drop the tempo and strip things back. ‘Polka Dots’ and ‘Dry Out’ are mid-paced indie-rock numbers far removed from the rest of the record. On the first few listens it might seem jarring or disconnected, but after repeated plays they soon fit the flow of the record.
The only criticism really is that at 14 songs, it just feels too long. Fortunately, it’s not because ‘Black Coffee, Bad Habits’ runs out of steam, instead it just feels like a couple of songs – mainly ‘Live and Die’ and ‘My Oh My’ – lack the invention or character of the rest and don’t have enough about them to force themselves into your consciousness. A little more editing – or at least the confidence to drop a couple of songs – could have helped shape ‘Black Coffee, Bad Habits’ into something spectacular. Still, it always feels like I’m nit-picking if I’m complaining about a band not cutting songs, and in this case, it’s not like they outstay their welcome – just that they’re merely OK.
Overall though, ‘Black Coffee, Bad Habits’ is a real statement of intent for both Choke Up and Black Numbers. If Black Numbers can keep the quality this high, then they’re in for a banner year; for Choke Up, I’ll be hugely disappointed if we’re not hearing lots more about them over the next 12 months.
‘Black Coffee, Bad Habits’ by Choke Up is released on 3rd February on Black Numbers
Words by Rob Mair (@BobNightMair)