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Review: Young Fathers Shake a Leg, Point Fingers on ‘White Men Are Black Men Too’

Young Fathers
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: April 06, 2015
Label: Big Dada

Boy, is that the album title of the year. Not just for of its popping-off-the-page provocation, the way it grabs you and makes you laugh uncomfortably without even really being able to explain why. White Men Are Black Men Too is also just an incredibly appropriate album title for the 12 tracks contained on Scottish trio Young Fathers’ second full-length LP: confrontational, sympathetic, and (possibly?) bitterly sarcastic. The songs on White Men toe a similar line between bracing and embracing, between back-stabbing and back-slapping, between laughing at you and laughing with you. If you don’t know what to make of the title, then that’s probably best of all, and YF will be tickled pink by your confounded facial expressions.

As a mixed-race, genre-crossing U.K. trio with at least a tendril or two in the hip-hop world and an ineffable sense of cool pervading their every move, the most obvious past reference point for Young Fathers would be trip-hop forefathers Massive Attack. But whereas Daddy G, 3D, and Mushroom only got more sonically paranoid and claustrophobic with each successive ’90s release, Young Fathers have loosened up significantly since the days of early-’10s scorched-earth EPs Tape One and Tape Two. They’ve become the rare post-punk revivalists who remember how funny the Pop Group’s “She Is Beyond Good and Evil” was, or how one of the Slits’ best songs was an “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” cover, or that the “disco” element was as important to the success of Public Image Ltd. as the “death” part.

Take a song like “Shame,” one of the album’s advance singles. The verses contain some of the band’s most firebombing lyrics to date, leading with the opening salvo “Nothing but a bare faced lie / Is all you cunts can hold on to.” But from the very outset, the song’s groove is irresistible, a tap-dancing shimmy of bellowing bass and boogieing drums. In fact, the song is positively bursting with rhythmic exuberance — as if their fifth-grade music teacher just brought out a box of percussive instruments and the band all tore into it at once — layering tambourine, clave, maracas, even some good old-fashioned “Barbara Ann”-style in-studio hooting and hand-clapping. By the time the chorus rolls around, singer “G” Hastings sounds like he’s having too much fun to really pack much venom into the titular condemnation, sounding more tut-tutting than excoriating as he cries, “It’s a shame on you.”

Young Fathers have always drawn from a wide-enough array of influences and juggled between enough voices to keep from seeming rigid or overly straight-faced. But even previous album (and surprise Mercury Prize-winner) Dead was a little too gunshy to open up to the pop melodies or dance rhythms that the group lets in here, for the sake of stunning juxtaposition. The album’s starkest moment comes with the blaring, jagged (and winkingly named, natch) “Old Rock n Roll,” in which the album’s title phrase appears as the refrain to a brutal self-examination of racial identity (“I’m tired of playing the good black / I’m tired of wearing this hallmark for some evils that happened way back / I’m tired of blaming the white man”). But that’s followed with “Nest,” a jarringly gentle ballad with a kind of Holland-Dozier-Holland piano-led swing, propelled by omnipresent “Baby, baby” chants. The record is full of these obfuscating transitions, often between lyrics or melodies within the same song — “Nest” alone seems to switch from a tender love song to a childhood reminiscence to a rueful apology subtly enough that you don’t even have to realize it happened at all.

There’s a ton to unpack with White Men Are Black Men Too, but the main difference between this album and the trio’s past work is that they’ve now allowed you to do so at your own leisure. You can tackle the struggle of morality and mortality that is “Still Running,” with all of its afterlife anxiety, or you can enjoy the song’s delightful xylophone hook and metronomic bass pulse. Or both. The LP is the group’s most enjoyable, but also their most potent, all the more menacing for its unlikely grinning. Young Fathers haven’t started pulling their punches, but they’ll dance around a good deal while throwing ’em now. Their science is sweeter than ever for it.