Amongst the thicket of British post-punk bands currently wading across the Atlantic, only one might reasonably remind you of your old-fashioned college a cappella group.
The Futureheads, a quartet from Sunderland, England, mix four-part harmonies with driving guitar play and herky-jerky rhythms. They’re far from the cardigan-wearing singers of yore, though. They don’t cover Manhattan Transfer, but they have done a version of “Hounds of Love,” the little-known 1985 song by singer-songwriter Kate Bush.
The Futureheads’ version, which music magazine NME ranked as the No. 1 track of 2005, might better be titled “Hounds of Luv,” to match their accents. It begins with scattered echoes of “oh,” followed by Barry Hyde’s urgent verse and a thunderous guitar entrance.
“When the band begins to rollick, it sounds less like a rock group than a loud quartet of monks doing a brisk plainchant,” The New Yorker recently wrote.
Now touring, the Futureheads say their four-part harmonies are integral to their rock riffs.
“I think there’s a kind of brotherhood in us all singin’ at the same time,” says guitarist Ross Millard. “The four-part harmony thing is something that will always be in the band, because it adds so much.”
The Futureheads — who recently released their sophomore album “News and Tributes” — formed years ago at a Sunderland youth outreach center where several of them met while tutoring kids about music.
Hyde, 25, is the closest thing the band has to a frontman; he shares songwriting responsibilities with the 23-year-old Millard, whose left leg perpetually thumps to the beat in concert, as if of its own volition. David “Jaff” Craig, 24, plays bass, while Dave Hyde, Barry’s 21-year-old brother, plays drums.
And they all sing.
‘We didn’t know what the hell we were doing’Originally, Peter Brewis played drums for the Futureheads. He quit early on and later formed Field Music, a band also given to harmonic intricacies. The two Sunderland groups remain close, and speak reverently of each other.
The first, self-titled Futureheads album (partly produced by Andy Gill of Gang of Four) was released in the fall of 2004, quickly finding rave reviews and indie buzz. Featuring mostly three-minute blasts of catchy math-rock, the disc was very much a debut album: inconsistent and raw, but full of energy.
“We didn’t know what the hell we were doing on our first album,” says Hyde, noting that many of the songs were written over a period of years. “We don’t really classify it as an album; it’s a collection of songs, really.”
The Futureheads emerged at the same time as a wave of British guitar bands was breaking: Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party and Kaiser Chiefs, among them — all usually described as influenced by late-’70s bands like Wire or Gang of Four.
“It isn’t a great thing to be in a band, making your first steps and everywhere you walk around for you to be lumped in with other bands’ names,” says Hyde. “No band wants that.”
Millard expects that the more audiences hear of this crop of British bands, the more their differences they’ll hear. In the case of the Futureheads, that seems likely.
More melancholy record“News and Tributes” is an undeniably more mature record — often slower, melancholy and more carefully arranged. As on their first disc, much of the songwriting is conceptual, centered on a single idea or character.
The title track is based on the 1958 plane crash where much of the Manchester United soccer team was killed — a historic tragedy in England. The mournful elegy of soaring voices is a clear departure for the Futureheads, who say they’ve come to think of all songs as tributes.
“I just really liked the idea of taking an event that happened in the past that had meant a lot to me, and trying to write a song about it,” says Millard. “I think it was more just a test to see if we could do it more than anything else.”
Another song, “Burnt,” features what Hyde touts in concert as the true mark of a second album: an acoustic guitar. But it’s the single, “Skip to the End,” that’s absurdly bouncy. Like earlier songs of theirs, such as “First Day” and “Man Ray,” “Skip to the End” is built around a smart lyrical concept.
Hyde sings: “If I could cheat, I would skip to the end/ And decide if it’s worth going through with/ Skip to the last paragraph just before we start/ Happy ending or a broken heart?”
The word “decide” is sung by the whole band in a higher register — just one of hundreds of punctuations that the band’s four-pronged vocal attack can produce.
“It’s just about embellishing the arrangement, bringing out certain elements, certain notes that you want to make more important,” says Hyde of their harmonizing. “Writing the parts isn’t the hard part — it’s making all the parts fit together.”