Album Review: The Radio Dept. – Clinging to a Scheme

[Labrador; 2010]

Now just releasing their third album in their fifteen year lifespan, many might easily accuse The Radio Dept. of being stingy with the amount of work they put out. But any fan of the band knows this isn’t necessarily the case. Between album releases there’s been a steady stream of EPs which many will argue hold their best work, the likes of This Past Week and Pulling Our Weight being particularly favoured. Delayed for more than a whole year after the original announcement of its completion, Clinging To A Scheme arrives with an apt title as it finds the bands treading water between the sounds they have set down on their last two albums while also throwing in a few surprises.

Many listeners will might well find it hard to distinguish which album Clinging to a Scheme takes more from. It’s got a pleasing sheen to it which follows on from the spruced up Pet Grief but careful listeners will still hear the low humming buzz which lingered on Lesser Matters. However the distinction isn’t really necessary as those who prefer The Radio Dept. with glimmering facades and those who prefer them soaked in distorted noise will find something to like here.

It’s been some seven years since we apparently had the band figured out too soon on Lesser Matters but when you hear the one-two punch that opens up Clinging to a Scheme you’ll likely be struck with a sensation of déjà vu. “Domestic Scene” opens up the long awaited proceedings on a lyrically ambiguous and slightly sombre note asking openly “Do I give in?”. You could forgive lead singer Johan Duncanson for coming across as tired and worn out as he’s always been one to linger on the past, taking solace from the little things, like the look a lover gave him years ago or a single phrase that was uttered in his general direction. “Seemed like a good idea at one time” he continues with a sort of hushed resentful regret. “We’re leaving just in time” he finishes, as the delicate guitars and thumping bass come to a halt, making you think he’s ready to stop the music before it’s really started. You begin to empathize for Duncanson and are pretty much ready to put your arm around his shoulder and tell him not to give up before he plays his wild card.

Again much like its predecessor “Where The Damage Isn’t Already Done”, “Heaven’s On Fire” throws you suddenly into an alarmingly uplifting world. There’s a sort of subtle hidden funk to “Heaven’s On Fire” as the guitars and bass slide up and down with ruffled actions as the notes are hit. Despite it breaking into more familiar territory half way through when the piano comes in, it does not lose its edge nor does the pace let up. It even manages to bring back the initial flurry from the beginning of the song and add to it with what sounds like some trumpet fanfare hiding between the concisely delivered rhythms.

As far as new ground goes, “Heaven’s On Fire” is perhaps the prime example and the only real change many will see. Other single “David” might not seem like more than throbbing bass and stuttering drums but the song can actually catch you off guard. Underneath the harsh exterior there are glimmering melodies that are tinkering away. “Four Months In The Shade” also hints at an even more abstract side for the band as they offer nearly two minutes of pulsating hazy drones accumulating in some faint undistinguishable words from Duncanson.

Other than that though, it’s business as usual for the rest of the album and sometimes business isn’t exactly booming for the band it seems. Despite some hurried drumming and a good vocal melody “This Time Around” fails to stick in my mind much in the same way the upbeat flurry of the greatly titled “The Video Dept.” fails to offer any distinctive moment really worth coming back for. I know I like “A Token Of Gratitude” and can get lost in both its lyrical centre and hazy outro but I’ll be damned if I can actually describe it correctly without having it playing.

If anything though, the amount of forgettable material here is frustrating as with only eleven tracks and just over half an hour of music, there’s a lot more pressure on the stronger moments to draw you in and keep you there. Thankfully though, they do that job quite successfully. Clinging to a Scheme is easy to persist with but not always fully rewarding even when you’ve spun it a few times in a row.

But as said, the better moments do shine and there are a few which don’t rely on new tactics but instead merely showcase the band executing a style they’ve managed to almost master. The majority of this revolves around Duncanson’s lyrics which still find him bitter and overly sentimental and still delivered in dreamy pop haze. When “Never Follow Suit” throws in an off-kilter sample from a graffiti writer from the film Style Wars, he even morphs the words to give them a new meaning, repeating the line “It’s for us” as if he’s explaining all his mistakes as an act of love. On the aforementioned “A Token Of Gratitude” the line “Did I love you?/Yes I loved you/ But easy come easy go” rings loud in my mind and perhaps suggests he’s not as bitter as originally thought, realising that love in life is indeed fleeting but at least he was lucky enough to encounter the feeling in the first place. Pleasing closing number “You Stopped Making Sense” drifts by with occasional light climaxes that match the lyrics. “I want to come closer” he sings before the paces returns to a more steadied stream. After all these years perhaps the only real advice Duncanson needs is not to be so coy and embrace his music and fans more. I, for one, will welcome him with open arms.