The Bads – formed around the duo of Bret Adams and Dianne Swann – return with album number four. They haven’t made a bad album, only Bads albums – which are always very good albums; I thought their last one might have been their best. And then this rolled up to shove that one down the order a peg. Thing is, every new album is an improvement, a refinement.
Adams and Swann were in a band in England, The Julie Dolphin, they returned home and rebranded as The Bads. Before the Dolphin they were in When The Cats Away (and Adams was in The Mockers). They have also worked as a songwriting, recording and live duo in support of other acts, they backed Cold Chisel’s Don Walker, Adams went out on the road with Rodriguez, Swann has done mentoring – they’ve worked with Tim Finn too. And many others.
And every three to four years they shape up a new album around their own sound, a mix of rock and pop styles with hints of country too. Sometimes The Bads possibly suffer for being considered some sort of alt-country band – though it’s hard to deny that Swann can sing the hell out of a tearjerker-ballad and Adams is a deft-hand on the guitar, the whiz and twang offers something of the sound of classic country – and the rockabilly romp of Calling Home is just one obvious example of his country feel and chops.
Maybe The Bads’ biggest mistake is that there’s no one hook to hang their sound on; you would think that would be a strength. And devoted fans know this is the case – of course it is. But still, where to place them, how to place them? Hearing Swann sing Spinning Wheels Turning Tides I think of Willy Vlautin’s post-Richmond Fontaine vehicle, The Delines. Hearing the title track Adams and Swann lament the loss of heroes – from Bowie and Prince and Leonard Cohen to, locally, Graham Brazier and Dave McArtney; The Bads had working relationships with both of the Hello Sailor songwriters – is to see and feel the way that this band works out a new sound from the vestiges of country, rock and indie-pop. There’s a soul and heart to these songs – clever hooks, strong lyrics, enticing melodies and note-perfect playing that somehow never sounds too clean, always has just enough mud on its shoes.
There’s not a dud here. Once again. And in the grunt of opener Get It Right and later down the line on the blistered, bruised but blissful Him & Here there’s something of the sound these two summoned pre-The Bads.
Heartbreak Beach is as good as I’ve ever heard Dianne Swann – lyrically, musically, vocally – and it’s framed just right. Adams is strong when out in front leading the song too, but more often I want to hear him as the stylist shaping and cutting. That said, he’s in fine form on Same House, Swann’s vocal shadowing, hiding inside the lines, occasionally poking out either side of what he sings. That’s the brilliance of these two – as working songwriters, partners in music – they know each other’s strengths (and I guess weaknesses). They know how to colour correctly in and around the lines and to share the spotlight.
They are making music that is as good as anything I’m hearing – here and abroad. I wish them more than luck with this – their finest. They deserve an international following, a global audience; they deserve every success, hard-fought and well-earned.