We Are Scientists, co-spearheaded by Keith Murray and Chris Cain, are a simple band. For their breakthrough album With Love And Squalor they needed little more than guitar, bass, drums and a killer hook in each song to win the hearts of thousands of fans. The follow up to that, 2008’s Brain Thrust Mastery, saw the departure of their permanent drummer Michael Trapper prior to recording and whether as a direct reaction to that or perhaps other reasons the remaining duo decided to implement new instruments and influences in their sound, leaving them with an ’80s influnced, jazzier sound. Now with their third album Barbara, the first since splitting with from major label EMI, the band have, somewhat regrettably, returned to that simple forumla that shaped their first major release.
Needless to say, We Are Scientists are not a pioneering or even remotely experimental band; they keep it simple and plays to their strengths; writing relatable lyrics and simple guitar hooks, but several albums down the line without any new experimentation ideas are starting to become thin on the ground. For the majority of Barbara we have a collection of radio-friendly songs, wherein the vocals carry the melody and lead the direction of the songs, with the rest of the band following obediently in their wake. Each song is set out neatly with the verses and choruses easily distinguishable and the whole affair is inoffensive, enjoyable and at its peaks (“Rules Don’t Stop,” “Nice Guys,” “Jack & Ginger”) downright fun, but the rest are left wallowing in mediocrity.
In amidst these conventional We Are Scientists songs are a few curveballs, for example “Pittsburgh.” The song takes a slower, more lurching pace, led by the drumming of stand-in ex-Razorlight man Andy Burrows, telling the tale of a pair of forlorn would-be lovers with a harmonised chorus and cavernous guitars; a nice change of pace for the band if not overly spectacular. “Foreign Kicks” repeats the trick but with a little more poise, and its chorus of “it’s timing baby, forget above the summer, it’s over” amidst washes of jangling guitars gives it a certain air of nostalgia and makes it a standout of the album.
This is not a case of what We Are Scientists have done wrong on this album, because there is nothing that you can point to as a particular problem. Rather it’s what is missing that leaves this album as an unspectacular piece, but this is just as just as difficult to adequately pinpoint. There was a certain edge, grit, wit and finesse that made With Love And Squalor such an infectious and replayable set of songs, and it seems to have escaped the band here. Perhaps it’s the switching of the lyrical perspective from that of the loveable loser to a more assertive character, perhaps it’s the change in personnel, or perhaps it’s simply that there’s only so much one can do with a guitar, bass and drums before ideas start to wane.