In music, a sudden change in direction can be considered a highly refreshing development, a bullet to the knees, or indeed clutching at straws. If a band has been carving a certain niche for themselves then decides to change genre, it can have a decidedly mixed reaction. If that niche has been carved time and time again, it might be wise to move away and try something new. Which is exactly what The Futureheads have gone and done.
The Sunderland quartet's fifth record - their third self-release since their departure from 679 Recordings - seems the epitome of "change in direction". The band have gone so far as to completely ditch their instruments, instead relying on their dulcet Mackem tones - yes, this is the same band that crafted one-time post-punk anthem Decent Days and Nights back in 2004, and yes, I will repeat: Rant is entirely a cappella.
While a glance at the record's premise might conjure images of a singsong at a Tyne-Wear derby game, the actual music stands up rather better. Small amounts of learning about the art of a cappella throughout last year have combined and familiar Futureheads songs were gradually reworked for this record. Opener Meantime's staccato harmonies match up surprisingly well, even if the sound can't hold a candle to the original song; the verses in Robot come out predictably a cut above than the refrains, since dynamics were clearly not among their priorities while mixing.
Covers of Black Eyed Peas' idea-laden, poorly executed Meet Me Halfway and Kelis' electro-driven Acappella end up feeling like, as with much of this album, a YouTube tribute to the originals rather than songs in their own right. Although the Sunderland twang in the vocals lofts them musically higher than their source, the lack of anything behind the voices means the tracks feel rather empty. Sadly, this is a recurring theme throughout Rant.
Barring the occasional cover, both of contemporary music and traditional English folk, much of the material being used for Rant is music already released by the group. While a novel idea - the listener can get a taste of what Thursday might have sounded without those heavy cymbals littering the soundscape, for instance - it seems like an opportunity missed. The Futureheads could have completely reinvented themselves with this album and started afresh, but it feels like they simply weren't willing to just put out a "Best Of" and instead wanted to add a marketable novelty. To be frank, if you already own the original versions of every song on this record - and chances are most fans do by now - you're buying this for the covers on their own.
While The Futureheads should be applauded for making the effort and not simply churning out another edition of Now That's What I Call Post-Punk Revival, the vehicle in which they've ventured so willingly outside of the box is so riddled with gimmicks it's not even roadworthy. The fact that not a single song in this collection has been written for the album raises considerable alarm bells as to the work put into the record.
Those looking for a band moving from strength to strength, evolving their sound and consistently striving to improve and adapt to their surroundings will be disappointed with Rant. Despite their best efforts, The Futureheads are definitively stuck in their groove, and not even binning the guitars can save them here. On this evidence the band's remaining days may be numbered, and this record may well turn out to be just a plank of wood in their coffin.
Rant is out on the 2nd of April.