Longevity is a rare commodity in the music industry. Bands come and go, artists pop up and disappear again with alarming frequency, so it’s a delight to find musicians who have been working together for most of their lives. For duo Allen and Douglas, their collaboration goes back to their teens, when “strumming, singing and writing away in old railway stations and under canal bridges, we developed our sound, harmonies and song-craft as young men through hard work and trial and error.”
Based in Birmingham – the one in England, not Alabama – they continue to write and record, having moved their base indoors to a bedroom recording studio. The result is an impressive back catalogue of work, culminating in their latest album Casino Games.
Kicking off the album with rock rhythms, “Wonderful Days” is as unpolished as early punk. Gritty guitar sits behind raw vocals, knitted together with synths. This is not a band that embraces auto-tune, as “I Feel Alive” carries their vibe into a psychedelic-folk space.
The band’s folk roots come to the fore in “Love Takes Precedence”, formed by acoustic guitar and embellished with strings. There’s a hint of Fleetwood Mac, as harmonies add a richness to the vocal without losing Allen and Douglas’ signature simplicity. But don’t get too relaxed. Title track “Casino Games” opens with an experimental, Sergeant Pepper-esque interlude before flowing into guitar pop, and this is echoed in the romance of “Buzz Honey” and the storytelling of “Intuition”.
With sliding dissonance that sits alongside the band’s unpretentious production approach, “A Million Moments” teases the ears. Slightly country, marginally psychedelic, comfortably punk, this is a track that needs to be heard a few times before it sinks in. And then comes “Flutterby”, an altogether sweeter offering, but remaining true to the duo’s raw musicality. Don’t mistake this simplicity for a lack of sophistication, though. This may not be music for the cultured ear, but there is an art to the style that is deliberate, teasing and demanding attention.
Bringing back the rock guitar and rough-hewn vocal, “Jackpot” proves that a duo can provide the depth of arrangement that we’d expect of a multi-instrumental band. They can soften it down to a pop-folk ballad too, as “Down To The Market” shows, complete with harmonica breaks and drifting percussion. There’s a taste of the ’60s in there, which is similarly audible in “Lo Lo Lo”, as the band reflects on missed opportunities “waiting for my ship, I guess it’s sink or swim, the captain’s jumped off and the crew pushed us in”, and “Two Into One” with it’s Lennon and McCartney harmonies.
Moving towards the close “Mirrors and Smoke” offers intriguing arrangements, stripped-back guitars and melancholy lyrics “life’s like a jigsaw with the final piece missing…is it all just mirrors and smoke”, after which a further, deliciously experimental break offers an unexpected finale “Be Lucky”.
There’s a near-live appeal to this album, as indie as they come and offering an unapologetic sound of two long-standing musicians doing their thing, their way. Which is what music is about, isn’t it?
Allen and Douglas are Craig Allen and Steven Douglas
Casino Games was released on 7 August 2017. Get your copy here or find it on Spotify
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