Sports Team’s debut album Deep Down Happy has been a long time coming. In the space of three years they’ve released two full-length EPs, a flurry of singles, and successfully pulled off two sold-out shows at the Scala and the Electric Brixton in London – but have yet to commit anything to an album.
Writing with a witty reverence for England with singles titled ‘Margate’ and ‘M5’, and amusingly poking fun at the predominance of American pop-culture with ‘Kutcher’; Sports Team has always had something to say. Garnering a reputation for their unpredictable gigs, frontman Alex Rice’s wild but charismatic stage presence joyfully laughs in the face of the stiffness of bands south of the river; adding a chaos that seems to have evaporated from guitar music.
Sports Team are less interested in changing time signatures and more interested in entertaining with chorus-led, guitar-driven indie-bangers.
With all this considered, you’d think they would deliver on this promise.
On this eleven-track LP, there are moments where Sports Team successfully deliver. ‘The Races’, ‘Camel Crew’, ‘Going Soft’ and ‘Kutcher’ are powerful, crunchy and melodic numbers that carry forward Sports Team’s sense of humour. On Camel Crew, Rice and Co jokingly ‘call-out’ art school pretension stating “go to Goldsmith’s and dye their fringes”. ‘Going Soft’ takes a well-meaning jab at music-lovers that “only listen to old bands” and ‘The Races’ pokes fun at the English upper-classes, “he’ll never buy a drink/ But he’ll let you know he can”.
With new producer Burke Reid at the helm, the guitars feel more abrasive, with new versions of ‘Camel Crew’ and ‘Kutcher’ feeling both warmer and rawer.
Musically, the vast majority of Deep Down Happy owes a debt to ’90s lo-fi indie groups such as Pavement, but also has echoes of early Blur. The clattering distortion of ‘Going Soft’, and the Graham Coxon style guitar solo, sloppily delivered (in the best way possible) by Henry Young, would not feel out of place on Modern Life is Rubbish or Parklife.
Sports Team’s evocation of rock history doesn’t end there, as Rice references Bowie (“ground control to major tom”) on album closer ‘Station of the Cross’; yet again showing their awareness of rock history, and their own place within it.
There are several tracks on Deep Down Happy that don’t work quite as well.
Hands in the air anthem ‘Fishing’ is grating in all the wrong ways. The two-note riff that kicks off the track seems cheap and almost nursery-rhyme-esque; lacking the crunch of the rockier tracks. Here, the production on Rice’s vocals is piercing and his delivery is shrieky; the refrain “we go out with our friends / And sit by the Thames” is cringey and seems like a cheap call to Londoners.
‘Here’s the Thing’ and ‘Here it Comes Again’ do, however, contain some interesting lyrical observations. The English festival season is beautifully captured on ‘Here it Comes Again’, as Rice howls ‘like a burning British neck on an August evening’. ‘Here’s the Thing’ questions the pro-work capitalist system the western world is raised on, “working hard you know is better for your soul (Lies, Lies, Lies)”. But ultimately these tracks have a grating quality that is mostly absent from their back catalogue of EPs.
Given the band’s conscious detachment from post-punk and their collective faith in having a strong frontman, one of the oddest choices on the album is the addition of guitarist Robbie Knox on vocals. For instance, I was completely thrown off by the opening track ‘Lander’, featuring Knox’s half-shouting, half-speaking vocals that Rice and Sports Team are seemingly the antithesis of.
While there are some astute political observations on ‘Lander’ (“the ambulances don’t run anymore but you can get an Uber for £4.55”), with Knox at the reigns the lyrical wit of the earlier tracks seems to falter.
‘Long Hot Summer’s’ chorus refrain of “You’re like a spider: black on red” is silly and somewhat cringey; similarly, the line “oh love needs glue / But you bring Pritt stick” is far from inventive.
With so much promise going into Deep Down Happy, Sports Team’s debut has largely felt like a disappointment.
While everything that made Sports Team such an exciting group does creeps into this album, I can’t help but feel like a better selection of songs from their earlier work would have made this record sweeter.
Their amusing attempts last week to pip Lady Gaga to the number one spot (reducing their album price to a quid on I tunes) still shows Sports Team’s desire to shake-up the music industry, but perhaps this wasn’t the album for the job.
Amazingly, it still remains four years since a debut album by a band has reached the number one spot in the UK. But I guess number 2 isn’t too bad, for now.