Toe Rag studios will be familiar to many as the place where studio founder Liam Watson recorded The White Stripes’ ‘Elephant’ album. Rather less famously, he also used the studio to record ‘The Greatest White Liar’, the full length debut by Newcastle born singer-songwriter Nic Armstrong. From there, Armstrong scored support slots with Paul Weller and Oasis, while his career has also seen him share a stage with the legendary Pretenders and appear at the US’s favourite hipster-fest, Coachella. A long gap after that debut saw the Geordie songwriter relocate to Texas. From there, he released an EP, ‘Pocketless Shirt’, in 2013 and continued to play live. Despite these career highs chances are, though, you’ve still never heard Nic Armstrong and his band The Thieves. If relatively lo-fi sounds are your bag, it’s time you did, especially as his third release, 2015’s ‘Negative Slant’, really captures his lightning in a bottle sound.
With a slightly wobbly sound and a guitar that often like it’s slightly out of key and recorded into a tape deck (a la Robert Pollard), the title track presents arguably the most challenging listen straight out. At first it appears rhythmically hard and a little jarring, but this is all very much on purpose, of course. The drums punctuate everything with a real intent, and the hard chord structure is definitely set to send those not keen on the DIY approach packing. However, a key change into a more melodic chorus gives a much better idea of the thinking behind the arrangement, as fuzzy guitars fill space along with stabbed piano. Armstrong’s vocal, meanwhile, is occasionally reminiscent of the younger Robyn Hitchcock and once you’ve tuned in your ears to something very much highlighting Armstrong’s almost omnipresent love of all things retro, there’s a definite feeling that there’s a great song buried here. ‘Tourist Slant’ shows a darker side to the artist’s work, centring around a moody and low-key piano riff. A slow drum beat marks time, while slightly discordant guitar lines lend everything a slightly sixties air. The thoughtful arrangement is made more atmospheric (or not, given the proper send off, dependent on your viewpoint of the loud, almost demo-like production) by the presence of a treated vocal that has a real sense of sadness and loss behind the northern delivery. It very much sounds as if Armstrong is trying to tap into something that sounds like solo Lennon in a bleak mood, though not quite matching the ex-Beatle’s overwhelming and all-too-often heavy handed self pity, while simultaneously making the sounds relevant to the time in which they were created. This is a great track – the darker edge and strong melody ensure this is one of the EP’s most memorable offerings.
Uncovering the third musical mood in as many tracks, with a hefty garage rock sound, ‘Thom The John’ stokes up the ringing guitars and adds a slightly distorted vocal. Armstrong’s unmistakably northern delivery may just remind a few listeners of Arctic Monkeys, but musically, too, there’s more than enough here to impress lovers of that band, the Libertines and their ilk. It’s ragged yet tight musical stance brings a fantastic sense of energy to Armstrong’s no nonsense storytelling approach, the characterization here not so much Dylan or Billy Bragg, but rather more the everyday people that filled the young Paul Weller’s narrative driven works in the early 80s. A great contrast from ‘Tourist Slant’, the whole band can be heard at full tilt, providing a great insight into how things could turn rather noisy if The Thieves ever felt the need; the harsher guitar sounds are tempered, meanwhile, by some superb bass work and some squonky brass that adds a real edginess. The heavy bass drum stomp and quasi-folk picking of ‘Hailing Taxis’ shows Armstrong at his most stripped back, the spacious almost Jack White inspired arrangement allowing his vocal to carry the weight of the melody for the first verse and chorus. Gradually, the music swells, but not in a grand way, extra guitar lines fill a little space, a little more percussion sheepishly presents itself at a belated stage – it’s repetitive and circular, a tune that’s so clearly all about the vocal. It all adds up to a number that’s maybe interesting to listen to once or twice, but seems a touch slight after the full scale raucousness of ‘Thom The John’.
Armstrong returns to the piano for ‘Soft and Low’, a haunting closer, pitching his reverbed voice against rain and wind, as he plods through a simple chord structure. It’s musically rather basic at first, but no less entertaining…and once a warm bassline and spooky brass joins the arrangement, the fuller sound really grabs the ear. Topping everything with a heavy twanging guitar, this tune has many layers and comes with a cerebral approach that occasionally makes Armstrong sound like the missing link between The La’s Lee Mavers and American Music Club’s Mark Kozelek. An equally simple hook is all that’s needed to compliment those moody chords and as the last notes fade and the tape hiss is all that remains, there’s little doubt that Armstrong was holding this one back, making sure his best piece would be the last we heard.
Although only filling approximately seventeen minutes of your listening time – the equivalent of one side of a classic seventies elpee, or one and a half Minutemen albums – there’s so much variety here; so much to return to. It doesn’t all sound amazing – and different moods will surely result in different tracks being favourites at any given time – but in terms of slightly rough around the edges, analogue loving affairs, the bulk of this EP is very good. …And then there’s ‘Hailing Taxis’, a tune that, in a fairer world where more DIY recordings reached a bigger audience, would destined to become one the artist’s signature pieces. Although certainly not for those listeners who expect glamour and sheen at all times, those keen to hear a singer-songwriter with a solid talent and a surprising amount of heart, ‘Negative Slant’ may just surprise.