Over the course of music history, there have been artists that, despite not exactly being completely unappreciated in their native homeland, found much more success, popularity, and embracement in a different country or continent. Some choice examples include The Smiths in the US, The Runaways in Japan, Sparks and Big Black in the UK, Billy Talent in Germany, Violent Femmes in Australia and New Zealand, Bad Religion in most of Europe, and The Pixies in pretty much every country outside of the US.
In the 2000s, the New York/California band We Are Scientists, while a popular domestic act, saw way more success in the UK. It was fortuitous timing that the band’s post-punk inspired indie rock coincided with the very popular and mainstream post-Britpop indie rock scene happening in the UK, popularised by notable acts such as Arctic Monkeys, Kaiser Chiefs, Klaxons, The Wombats, Franz Ferdinand, The Automatic, Editors, Kate Nash, The Fratellis, The View, Razorlight, The Ting Tings, and Foals, to name just a few. While We Are Scientists’ music wasn’t exactly a one-for-one parallel to these artists, it bared enough similarity at the right time for the band to achieve success there, as was the case with other North American indie acts at the time, like Arcade Fire, Kings of Leon, The Killers, The Raconteurs, Interpol, and Vampire Weekend.
The band’s popularity in the UK saw them featured on British radio and television, having healthy chart success, getting their songs licensed for soundtracks to various shows, playing some of that country’s biggest festivals, and headlining rather sizable venues. After the release of their 2010 first-on-an-indie-label album, Barbara, interest in the band dwindled worldwide. This was not because Barbara was a failure; it was critically well-received, sold well, and featured three hit singles – “Nice Guys,” “Rules Don’t Stop,” and “I Don’t Bite” – but interest in the type of music that We Are Scientists were putting out faded, and if the band successfully rode the hype for the genre they were in, they also went out with it. Still, even as their popularity decreased, their three succeeding albums (2014’s TV en Français, 2016’s Helter Seltzer, and 2018’s Megaplex) still hit the UK charts (albeit, at 36, 48, and 45, respectively, and only remaining in the charts for one week each). Tenaciously, the band are still around and are here with their latest album, Huffy.
Upon first hearing Huffy, you’d be forgiven for thinking that no time has passed in the eleven years since Barbara. The first three songs – “You’ve Lost Your Shit,” “Contact High,” and “Handshake Agreement” – are all moulded from the band’s standard sound that made them popular in the first place. To their credit, it is great to see that the band are sticking to the kind of music that they want to play, rather than chasing musical trends, which is very commendable for any act. The problem is that the three songs have little character to make them stand out, either on this album or in the band’s discography. “Handshake Agreement” admittedly has some nice ideas, such as the contrasting bass and guitar riffs on the verse, studio banter in a chorus-to-verse transition, and a nice bridge section, but it is weighed down by an unremarkable chorus.
The album quickly picks up pace from there, with the frenzied, clowns-on-acid jamboree of “I Cut My Own Hair,” the stripped-back and haunting but peaceful “Just Education,” and “Sentimental Education,” which takes the We Are Scientists formula, but stretches it out into an eccentric piece with an experimentation of different instruments underneath the standard instrumentation of the main piece. What’s interesting is that, presumably unintentionally, the songs seem to be arranged in a way where each succeeding song surpasses the previous one in terms of quality, until we reach track eight, “Pandemonium,” which again, relies on that established We Are Scientists comfort zone. The chorus (“Pandemonium’s an understatement”) is admittedly catchy and will probably get stuck in your head, but beyond that, it’s not a very noteworthy song, which is made worse by the fact that it’s sandwiched between the two strongest songs on the album, “Fault Lines” and the penultimate “Bought Myself a Grave.”
“Fault Lines” could be considered a song in the vein of the We Are Scientists comfort zone, but it is greatly elevated by an interesting and memorable main riff and overall melody with a great chorus with enough vitality and power to be a real stand-out on the album. “Bought Myself a Grave” is the best song on the album. Dealing with the subject matter of a relationship that went south and has the ex of the song’s protagonist contacting him after wasting all the material goods that they took from their break-up, it begins with a somewhat sarcastic country-inspired acoustic guitar, accompanied with a very slight Billy Joe Shaver-esque twang from singer Keith Murray on certain pronunciations, with the band then accompanying him with an instrumentation that furthers the outlaw country vibe. But, at the halfway mark, the song seamlessly breaks down and transitions into an atmospheric and spacious rock instrumental, with some funky undercurrents and distorted and disembodied vocals arbitrarily splattered around. It’s superb, but, unfortunately, it really undercuts the album’s final song “Behaviour Unbecoming,” which is a nice and somewhat safe, but ultimately unmemorable end to the album.
Huffy is an album with peaks and valleys, of sticking to the known and verging to the unknown, and it benefits from repeat listens to fully appreciate it. It is an album that will remind you why We Are Scientists are a band that are still worth listening and paying attention to. There’s a sincerity to their commitment to the music they make, and it is clear that their post-punk inspired indie rock that they were creating in their heyday is the music that they have always wanted to make, rather than them creating what was popular at the time. Their music just so happened to coincide with a brief window in time where what they were creating and what was in demand intersected. While We Are Scientists’ mainstream popularity may have waned, their skills and abilities as musicians and songwriters definitely hasn’t, and Huffy is documented proof of that.