After Carter USM called it a day in the late nineties, James “Jim Bob” Morrison and Les “Fruitbat” Carter went their separate ways. Jim formed the short-lived Jim’s Super Stereoworld before embarking on a dual career as a solo artist and writer of novels, and Fruity formed Abdoujaparov, an indie rock band with punky undertones. Having parted on amicable terms, the USM men actually shared stages together just a couple of years later with their respective new outfits, on a double header tour that pulled in the fans. Looking back, it was an interesting time for both performers looking to forge new paths. At the 2001 gigs, Jim seemed uninspired, often delivering music that sounded like a shadow of his former punning self. For Les, the opposite seemed true and opportunity to explore new musical ideas with different people seemed to invigorate him. With energetic live performances and a very matey stage presence, Abdoujaparov were definitely going to be a band that the old Carter fans would take to their hearts.
Twenty years on and with a string of EPs and albums behind them, the on/off Abdou are still a going concern for Les in 2021, and their post-lockdown long player ‘Race Home Grow Love’ is very strong. It relies on a few tunes that sound like standard Abdou fare – all punk pop chords and a sneering undertone – but it’s best material, often played with enthusiasm and a real heart, is unafraid to work in different musical fields. With a willingness to branch out, these tracks add plenty of new interest to the catalogue.
A typically punchy workout, ‘Tough Times’ will be an instant fan favourite with its barrage of indie punk chords calling back to bands like These Animal Men and S*M*A*S*H. A high energy riff carries everything with ease, whilst Les – in his distinctive yet ordinary sing-shouting delivery – recounts bouts of shoplifting, security guards that “didn’t look that hard”, and a tea time with the kids’ fish fingers and beans. It’s all so terribly British…and weirdly 80s. Along the way, you’ll discover some great descending notes creating a classic riff, and sharp rhythms punctuated by screeching sounds from guitar frets. By finishing with a rousing burst of “la la la”s, it’s the kind of opening track that doesn’t challenge the fans, but instead aims to pull them in via its energetic familiarity. With the aid of that wordless earworm and the kind of working class storytelling that’s often been part of Les’s work – it’s another Abdou classic. Opting for the full indie-punk ethic, ‘Brixton Flippin’ Riots’ mixes an old garage rock keyboard riff from the early 60s with a barrage of high octane power chords. Rowdy and retro, the arrangement might remiandnd some listeners of the classic USM b-side ‘Stuff The Jubilee (1977)’, but its tried and tested style is perfectly suited to the anger and dispair within the lyric, whilst a raucous lead guitar solo very much adds to the angst that cuts through everything. In and out in a little over two minutes, there’s plenty about this song that’ll (over) excite the old fans. ‘Race Home Grow Love’ includes a lot of stuff that’s smarter and musically superior, but there’s always a genuine joy to be had hearing Les cut loose in this way.
The noisier strains of ‘George’ call back to the punchier parts of the ‘Cycle Riot…’ album from ’07, with ringing guitar chords serving up a loud indie backdrop and some jarring keyboard sounds flesh out an arrangement that sounds as if it’s destined to become a classic live staple. Increased use of harmony vocals give this a much bigger feel than some of the other album tracks, and although Les isn’t the world’s best singer, there’s plenty within the music itself to make everything stand firm. Of particular note here is the guitar solo; Les pulls out all the stops and delivers a haunting lead break that’s full of the kind of vibrato-ed notes that you’d closer associate with an old hard rock LP. It’s at odds with the bulk of the track and yet it still works. There are a few moments here that carry faint echoes of older Carter works too – specially the use of an overdriven guitar sound harking back to ‘Worry Bomb’, and an the keyboard riff that sounds like a demo for a quiz show theme tune, which in another life, might’ve graced a ‘1992: The Love Album’ b-side.
Even more distinctive, ‘Goodbye Sweet Bread’ offers an unexpectedly catchy slice of pop when light harmonies contrast with a punchy indie rhythm before a Spanish guitar solo fleshes out a disarmingly quirky tune. What will be familiar to fans, though, is Carter’s gift for an honest narrative, which in this case, deals with hitting the wall of middle age with a thud and the realisation that a lifestyle needs to change. On any other Abdou album, it would certainly be a highlight, but as part of ‘Race Grow Home Love’, it finds itself amid stiff competition for listeners’ affections. Tapping into Les’s love of synth pop sounds, ‘Where Was The Love When You Stitched Me Up?’ lends the album something very dark, with its quieter sections sounding like a homage to early Soft Cell. At the point listeners expect the rest of the track to play out in a similar fashion, it turns its attentions to a moody guitar part and – eventually – unleashes a rigid indie rock melody that takes some of Carter USM’s later fuller band sounds – and even Abdou – into a far more effective and mature place, Showing a different set of influences again,‘Valentine’s Picnic’ works a sinister waltz and accordion sounds to create something that like an old Divine Comedy demo. It’s hardly typical Abdou, but at the same time, Les’s role as a quirky singer songwriter seems more than assured, and armed with with a strong melody, he slowly unveils a weirdly unsettling tune that some fans will eventually consider a favourite.
Those looking for even broader, more inventive pop/rock should head straight for ‘If You Want To Save The World (Listen To The Girl)’, a drum heavy, angular workout that – at least at first – owes more to eatly XTC than any of Les’s usual touchstones. The way his natural vocal style weaves in and out of hard beats and grooves accentuates Abdou’s quirkier side, whilst a wall of keyboards straight from 1981 lend a very retro pop core. ‘You’re Breaking Up’, meanwhile, teases with country influenced indie on a tune that’s heavily weighted towards hard strummed chords and souring relationship narratives. Those lyric loving listeners will love the simple and direct visuals that are built throughout: its straight talking approach makes it very easy to visualise the couple in the last throes of their time together, and a couple of listens puts you right in the eye of the storm; an unwelcome interloper on a troubled summer evening. On a more melodic tip, ‘You Don’t Have To Be Alone’ mixes acoustic guitars with strident piano notes in a way that sounds like a World Party demo. With a fat bass line linking everything, it’s a tune that suggests something lightweight, but the lyric concerning kindness, friendship and looking out for others lends so much gravitas, especially considering the era of lockdown and social distancing in which it was written. Musically, it brings some great pop to the Abdou catalogue, but there’s also something strangely familiar too. Like most people, Les would have had plenty of time to reflect on the past during an isolated 2020, and there’s something about this tune’s sax break and kazoo-like keyboards that take their melodic streak from Jamie Wednesday, bringing his career full circle.
Elsewhere, ‘The Town Where I Grew Up’ fuses music that Ian Broudie would’ve delivered in ’89 to a very Carter-esque narrative about life, moving on, and the bittersweet sadness that change can bring. The sadness eventually becomes a warmth and happiness when Les returns to the titular town as an adult, and there’s plenty within this short piece that is hugely relatable, especially if you’re the kind of person who occasionally feels rattled by the passing of time and mortality. ‘The Battle’s Won’ comes across like a distant cousin to the more sinister tunes in the Carter catalogue, with synths used in a heavily orchestrated fashion whilst Les ruminates on “opening up our hearts”. It might never have been intended, but there’s something here that sounds like a low budget John Cale, and on any other Abdou album it would’ve given far more pause for thought; the fact that it feels a little underwhelming at first actually says more about the overall quality of ‘Race Home Grow Love’ than anything. In closing, the lengthy ‘Bigger Better’ almost appears to throw all of the band’s musical traits into a blender, but sounds nothing like a comfortable rehash of past glories. Starting with soft acoustic work with a finger picked bent, a vague hint of a Mike Oldfield-esque melody is certainly the last thing you’d expect from an Abdou recording, but it’s there, and Les approaches the floaty arrangement with a suitably quiet voice. Building confidence through a couple of verses, things take on far more of a singer-songwriter vibe, yet never fully give away all of the musical secrets. Eventually, a burst of electric guitar and louder drums drop everyone into a comfort zone, but again, there’s something at the heart of the melody that suggests grander ideas than ever before – grand, but never grandiose – and eventually, everything falls away to take the music back to its semi-acoustic origins, with Les sounding like a man who knows he’s added something rather special to an already impressive release.
If you’ve spent years wearing out your copies of ‘Air Odeon Disco Pub’ and ‘Cycle Riot History Gang’ and think you know what to expect here, it’s time to think again. ‘Race Home Grow Love’ is unmistakably Abdou, but it’s also bigger, more sophisticated and far more varied from a musical standpoint. Will the fans like it? Almost certainly, but at the same time, there are tracks that’ll require time and work before the listening rewards are truly gained. After a long time away, this is a triumphant return. It’s a different Abdoujaparov; a more mature sounding band, even, but any changes are for the better. With a more varied musical palette and a greater attention paid to some of the arrangements’ smaller details, it’s potentially their best album to date. It could even be the best new work from Leslie George Carter since 2005.
Read an interview with Les here.