Paper Rifles - The State Of It All (Cover Artwork)

Paper Rifles

The State Of It All (2018)

Round Dog/Anti-Manifesto

Some records are slow burners. They take a while to grow on you, gradually burrowing their way under your skin with repeated listens. Other records give you an instant rush and seem to appear fully formed in your memory after a single listen, so by the time you hit play for a second time you’re greeting every song like an old friend, singing along to lyrics you didn’t realise you’d absorbed. The debut album from Edinburgh’s Paper Rifles falls squarely in the latter camp.

The State Of It All was co-released by Fraser Murderburger’s Round Dog Records, but has little in common with the Murderburgers or Fraser’s myriad side projects; there are no Lookout-era Queers/Weasel riffs here. Paper Rifles’ work is more considered, but no less potent.

The State Of It All was recorded in a mere two or three days but these songs have been gestating for years, road-tested in countless small venues in the unforgiving solo singer/songwriter format, with no band to hide behind. You see, Paper Rifles used to be just singer and guitarist Jon Dick, and the majority of the songs on this album have emerged in solo acoustic form on various singles and EPs since he started performing under the name in 2014. He assembled a full band for the album, and boy does it transform these songs.

Where Paper Rifles’ previous work might have recalled early Frank Turner, occasional tour mate Billy Liar and, yes, Billy Bragg, these new versions sound like they belong on a much bigger stage than the ones they’ve been performed on so far. Surprisingly full and clean sounding given the time and budgetary constraints, these songs are anthemic enough that they deserve to be screamed along to by thousands of drunken, rain-soaked Scottish festival goers in the same way that, say, Biffy Clyro’s hits are.

The opening verse of first track ‘Politics’ is a killer, as Dick contrasts the fiery certainty of youth with the more measured attitude of later life, singing:

“Every young man pins his colours to a mast
Piles the liars high, smiles, and lights a match
But I'm an old man now, settled in my ways
I learned that mixing drinks and politics won't pay”

The song could be a distant cousin to Frank Turner’s ‘Once We Were Anarchists’ (“young enough to be all pissed off but old enough to be jaded”), but where Turner signs off with a dismissive “If the revolution doesn’t want me I don’t give a shit”, Dick steels himself to continue the fight:

“I will wake my soul, or at least the part of it I can't disown
And I will take the roll call of all the fighting truths I can't let go”

For a fairly mid-tempo song it packs a hell of a punch. But if ‘Politics’ is too slow for you, ‘Four Hours’ blasts out of the gate with a fury that might shock anyone familiar with earlier acoustic versions. It’s anti-war in a burning-with-righteous-anger way rather than a lame-hippy-protest way. The chorus borrows heavily from the US Marine Corps and Full Metal Jacket (“If I die in a combat zone, box me up and ship me home / Pin my medals to my chest, tell my girl I did my best”) but the following line is the kicker: “I asked no questions, I bought a lie”. It showcases some killer harmonies too.

There are highlights aplenty among these 11 tracks, from ‘It Always Rains In Scotland’, which stays just the right side of lyrical cliché and almost ends up genuinely affecting, to ‘Sharp Tongues’, which has ‘ooh ooh’ backing vocals that any number of chart-bothering bands would be proud of.

Dick – who shows off a surprisingly impressive vocal range – is a history teacher by day, and occasionally this bleeds through into his songwriting, which is unapologetically literate as well as political. See, for example, ‘Faith Healer’ with its references to Nye Bevan, the chief architect of the NHS, or the quiet piano-led closer ‘I Was A Whaler’, which will send you scurrying for a dictionary to look up the word “scrimshaw”.

Elsewhere, ‘Bad Blood’ is the most overtly Billy Bragg-ish track (“schoolboy fascists sing the songs of marching boots and hate / it seems the most expensive education goes to waste”), while ‘No Tunnel Light’ might be the most personal song on offer, finding Dick sitting “on a Sunday afternoon with a bottle of wine and a sense of doom”. For all that introspection, it still manages to sound utterly triumphant.

That’s the common thread here – I’d say these songs sound effortlessly anthemic, but that would belie the craft that went into their creation. Honest, passionate, undeniably Scottish, Paper Rifles balance polemic – at times they recall the pissed off politics of, say, the Shell Corporation – with pop sensibilities to great effect. Is it punk rock? Sure, at times – and perhaps more in attitude than sound. But who cares? It’s great songwriting. Check it out.