In 2009, Crazy Arm released their debut album, Born to Ruin. At the time I gave it a rating of 9/10, but before I start out on their second album, I need to make one tiny adjustment to that score. I don't think it's always possible to identify a classic album when you first hear it. For me, a classic album usually comes to the fore after a period of time when you realise that each and every listen of that album brings as much enjoyment, interest or whatever it is you seek from music–i.e., the law of diminishing, marginal returns does not apply. Therefore, I'd upgrade my original rating to 10/10, as Born to Ruin is indeed a classic album.
With that out of the way, one can imagine how excited I've been as Crazy Arm has drip-fed new tracks over the last 18 months or so, either in a live setting or via the two digital singles ("Ambertown" and "Tribes") that have come out since last December. From the four new recorded tracks, it was plainly evident that Union City Breath was not going to be a Born to Ruin Part II. With the addition of the equally talented locals Patrick James Pearson and Vicky Butterfield, there has been a conscious effort to ensure that, whilst the album retains all of the elements of anger and outrage that underlie much of what Crazy Arm sing about, the resultant suite of songs would move the band forward in terms of the breadth of arrangements and the diversification of their sound. This doesn't mean they've turned their backs on the sonic assault that was such a feature on the debut album–more a case of it being refined without losing that edge, thanks again to another grand piece of work by producer Pete Miles.
Opening with "Of the Tarantulas", it's clear that Patrick James Pearson is not just along for the ride, as the keyboards feature prominently here and crop up regularly across the album. A thunderous beginning which shows that Crazy Arm are able to maintain, with ease, the quality contained on their debut long-player.
It's no surprise to find the epic "Tribes" third in the running order, given this is renowned for being the position held for singles/anthems/etc. on albums, and as this track has been immortalised in a quality video recently and is also a belter of a song to boot, it warrants its place, highlighting how Crazy Arm are maturing as a unit. This track also provides a fantastic live sing-along in its second half, so if you're going to see them make sure you learn the words to join in.
Most commonly referred to as a roots-punk band, the word "country" is also bandied around too when describing their music. Although it is there to hear, the country element is far from being an overriding force within the music–it's more of a recurring theme. The same goes for the use of the word "folk," but here this is clearly reflected in the choice of "Song of Choice", an updated version of a Peggy Seeger protest song that in a live setting has proven to be a huge favourite and which deserves its place on the album both from a musical perspective, but also as part of a wider warning against the continued existence of right-wing organisations such as the BNP and EDL.
With Butterfield's voice working perfectly in unison with that of Johns, this opens up a whole new world for the vocals on this album. On Born to Ruin, the use of Kat Marsh as an additional vocalist was extremely limited, but here the use of male/female vocals is much more plentiful and the positive results of the combination are there for all to hear.
If you're looking for the more punk rock side of Crazy Arm then look no further than "Bandalito", whereas for big guitar riffage, it's to be found in "The Endless Carriage", but intertwined with that oft-mentioned country element too. For something that has a slight "pop" feel to it, mixed with some big guitars, "Little Boats" is a song which, for me, has the potential to follow "Tribes" as a single. What is clearly apparent is that this is a difficult band to pigeonhole, given the sheer variety of songwriting styles they adopt and without this diversity watering down their focus or consistency. Thankfully, though, the band has not eschewed the more "in your face" sound that made Born to Ruin the tour de force it is, and this still underpins much of Union City Breath.
As unlikely a consideration as it would seem for the band to think about, one of the by-products of the quality of Union City Breath is that the songs are potentially more accessible to the larger audience that the band so richly deserve.
Having already played the first single from the album many times and having had the luxury of hearing a few of the new songs live, this album gets the perfect score reserved for the classic albums as discussed above. I'm breaking my own rule here because I cannot see how this can be anything other than one of those records that I turn to when I need something that brings enjoyment, both musically and lyrically, never faltering from the pinnacle it attains from the off.
One might question my objectivity here, given that I reside in the same city as Crazy Arm and occasionally chat over a beer or two with frontman Darren Johns, but seriously, you have to have ears made of cloth not to find Crazy Arm one of the most exciting and invigorating (yet remarkably still underappreciated) bands that has surfaced in the last five years. I'm not talking just in terms of the UK here, but across Europe and beyond. This should be the record that takes them to the U.S., where I'm convinced there lays a potentially huge and largely untapped market for their music.
The liner notes provided by Johns also add insight not only into the songs themselves but also to himself, as he opens one or two doors for glimpses that do not come through directly from those songs.
Having recently read through the excellent Touch & Go zine compilation, I want to end by borrowing a line written by Tesco Vee when reviewing X's Los Angeles: "I don't feel like dealing with a track by track assessment of this one - you simply must own a copy of this LP." He nailed it on the head then and it's the perfect summary to apply here now.