Stephen Pennell ©
“I jump through the necessary hoops to collect my tickets from the box office – photo ID, the card I paid with, confirmation e-mail – when did it all get so complicated? – and I’m probably at the door long enough to miss a couple of acts. I finally make it through in time to see The Assist, the main support, whose passionately delivered council pop is well-received by the 650-capacity crowd.
The Black Country boys have not long returned from playing several shows in Russia alongside The Twang, and their danceable yet powerful singles Just A Dream Away and I Don’t Care carry a hard-hitting hint of their recent touring partners’ sound. When the occasional keyboards kick in there’s an Editors vibe going on, and the band exude a passionate and fiercely working class West Midlands persona. They exit the stage to cheers having doubtless won over a few new fans, me included.”
From the book King City, Adventures Into Birmingham’s Diverse Music Culture by Stephen Pennell.
Just in case you didn’t notice, that’s me claiming credit for what I think is a brilliant album title. But then I would think that wouldn’t I? I should also point out that the book’s cover features a stunning photo, plus several more inside, by Assist guitarist Luke Jones. Now, on with the review…
It’s hard to claim to be ‘Walsall’s finest’ when you’re competing for the title with legendary Slade frontman Noddy Holder, and Jorja Smith who, let’s face it, leads the world in the finery stakes. But The Assist have given it a bloody good go.
Council Pop looks and sounds like an important album from kick off to final whistle, which is fitting for the undefeated five-a-side football champions of the Birmingham music scene (yes, we do have a tournament). With some spoken-word homespun philosophy establishing the band’s working class roots, the name of the first track gives non-West Midlanders a clue about the other meaning of the album title. ‘Water’ boasts a dramatic string arrangement intro which draws comparison with another seminal local debut - The Streets’ Turn The Page from Original Pirate Material - with lead singer Mikey Stanton passionately preaching The Assist manifesto like a reincarnated Keith Flint.
‘Irrational Movements’ is another banger, calling out our obsession with how we look on social media over a relentlessly funky backing track, while ‘End Of The World’ encourages the listener to view life’s trials and tribulations with a sense of perspective. Like all the philosophies expounded on the album, this one is articulate and wise yet communicated clearly and effectively.
Half-way through listening to fourth track ‘Numb’, the incredible quality of the album began to dawn on me and had me wondering how long it could keep up the pace, but this collection is both a marathon AND a sprint - the quality simply never lets up.
‘Daydream’ sounds like something that would be perfectly at home on any ‘Best of The Twang’ compilation, a noble aim for any West Midlands band, but nowhere near the limit of The Assist’s ambitions.
‘To Isabella’ is poetic, profound, and one of the most affecting love songs I’ve heard, with a deliciously Housey outro. These boys have been to more than their fair share of Twangmasses and raves, I’d bet my life on it.
‘My Friend Drug’ is a sprawling, inspiring track of epic proportions and sums up the spirit of The Assist in one couplet:
“Don’t you know it’s the people that give the music its sound/And in the depths of the music is where the stories are found”
We all know a Nobby, the star of Television Kid, and the track brings a smile to my face as it’s a pretty accurate biography of an acquaintance of mine from West Brom. Although a loudmouth wasteman in a West Midlands boozer is a pretty common character, granted!
Brother shows a remarkable flair for constructing a chorus and deeply personal lyrics sung with crystal clarity, encapsulating in one track the essence of the album - relatable, honest, a more powerful hook than Tyson Fury and just as likely to put you on the (dance) floor.
On an album this good, it’s hard to pick a stand-out, but Salvation is the track that elevates it from good to great. I can only describe it as stadium indie, reaching the heights Oasis were going for on Be Here Now, but never quite attained. Let that sink in for a minute.
Better Days is the perfect closer, a kind of warm-down that briefly reprises the opening track and in doing so establishes Council Pop as a coherent, cohesive body of work. The end of the album only begs the question ‘have I got time to listen to it again?’ The answer? Goo again I think. Yeah, goo again.