ALBUM REVIEW: The Bitter Springs – ‘Hope Springs Eternal’: lost British indiepop classic, expanded

THE BITTER SPRINGS’ Suburban Crimes of Every Happiness was originally released way back in 2001 when it went largely unnoticed, sunk in a sea of Strokes and White Stripes-based frenzy. The British indie scene that would come to dominate the next decade was brewing, gripping new bands emerging, everyone eager to fill a Britpop-shaped hole left in the collective music consciousness. 

And so, to put it frankly, frontman Simon Rivers of The Bitter Springs, a group of obscure musicians from Teddington, was hardly going to be the next NME cover star. 

The Bitter Springs had formed in 1982 as Last Party with the aforementioned Rivers, Kim Ashford, Daniel Ashkenazy and Steve Infield and by 2001 they already had six albums, a name change and collaborations with Vic Godard under their belt.

Suburban Crimes of Every Happiness marked a refined and underrated seventh album, an amalgamation of folk and indie rock that saw the band finally shake some of The Fall and The Smiths comparisons.

And now, almost 20 years later, the album has just been re-released on vinyl with additional bonus tracks too. It’s clearly time to reexamine this hidden and forgotten gem.

With a distinctly swing-like sound, the album gets off to a foot-tapping, shoulder-shaking start with “Red Mist Descends”.  A heady blend of dissonant, growling guitars and upbeat melodies, topped with an infectiously catchy chorus, it’s a compelling start, pre-empting the great things this album has to offer.

The exuberance is continued with “Muggers Take a Beating”, raucous yet tightly controlled with the combination of sulking, orchestral strings and catchy vocal motifs calling R.E.M’s “Losing My Religion” to mind whilst somehow remaining distinctly individual. And, bar a reference to Boyzone’s Ronan Keating, Rivers’ bittersweet lyrics, “search for signs of life, just try and mate for life” haven’t aged a day either. 

The slower, meandering, croon of “Share Your Love” is next, demonstrating Rivers’ real vocal range with an outpouring of pain woven into his soaring cries. With more than a touch of the soft rock ballads, these sort of songs can be found across the album: “Club Amnesia”, “Share Your Life” and “Dark Forces In The Wintertime”. They’re brooding and desperately emotional, painfully portraying mental lows and bitter heartbreak. However, it is the later tracks that combine that with string arrangements that are most effective when it comes to tugging at your heartstrings.

Until then, you can satisfy yourself with the brilliant “The Balance in The Countryside”, a strange Blur meets Withnail & I affair. The characteristic wit with which Rivers describes a townie’s trip to the countryside and prompt alienation of everyone he meets means he really should be considered among one of the better British lyricists of recent decades: “I sat my ego on a Euston train, I swore I won’t be coming back again ‘till I’d learned to live a simpler life”. The tongue-in-cheek, mocking lyrics are expressed by vocals that feel like a clear symptom of the Britpop hangover as you’re forced to question whether he’s talking or singing. Answer- who cares!  Trust me, the brilliant piano motifs and gloriously buoyant, infectious chorus will be playing on loop in your head for a long, long time. 

Another standout track, both nominally and sonically, is “Vagina Trees With Penis Leaves”, a meandering nine-minute collision of folk and indie rock, albeit a low-speed collision. Rivers’ whip-sharp lyrics are at their best here as his persona cynically laments building regulations killing creativity, blames Britney and the Spice Girls (very 2001!) for the rise in teen pregnancies and describes the struggle of having a “bogey on your nose ring”. The whole thing is kept sauntering along nicely by the hi-hats and steady, pattering percussion which fades the song out gently, making a smooth transition into the album’s instrumental break, “No Skulls”. 

This minute-long break divides the album’s 80-minute odyssey in half, marking the split between the two vinyl discs that Suburban Crimes Of Every Happiness is spread across. The track itself features a voicemail message of a customer making a very sweary complaint before promptly ending the message with “Thanks very much”, a jarring contrast to the soothing, lounge-style background music that it’s played over. 

Then switch the discs and move on to the second half of this album with “Stop The World”, a song that sounds like there’s been a scheduling cockup at some parochial village fair.  With snares, accordions, violins, and children’s voices all thrown into the folk-based mix, it sounds as though the marching band, primary school choir and local teenage indie band are all playing at the same time, an unlikely combination that somehow works, resulting in a weirdly rousing tune. 

It’s followed by “Vlad The Inhaler”, a track that steadily builds up from the opening drums as layers of vocals, piano and organs join. The irreverently jolly piano motifs are overlaid by hushed secondary vocals of “Impale your parents, exhale your children,” which will worm their way into your head with a disconcerting, subliminal ease. Then everything cuts off. just a lo-fi, crackling and fizzing beat remains before the track’s individual components rejoin, building anticipation for a glorious crescendo that actually never comes. 

And, instead of a raucous release of built-up tension from the refrain of “Vlad The Inhaler”, you get introversion of “Me And Your Wife” instead. Mind you, this is in no way unwelcome. The song is a smooth and moody, piano-led ballad, layered with clarinet melodies and syncopated, showy drums. It sounds like the kind of thing you would hear in the lobby of a swanky hotel in days gone by, were it not for the lyrical juxtaposition of ‘While you were asleep, I done her outdoors’.

Similarly smooth and with a touch of cabaret, “Blood-letting” builds sporadically, the swelling, tense guitars teasing a crescendo before waning again and allowing the intricate, sultry melodies to take centre stage, adding an almost Iberian feel to this track. Eventually, the tension is released in an overwhelming crescendo as the wailing vocals release a pain previously hidden by the bitter lyrics. Crushing and utterly gut-wrenching, it really is something else. 

The anguish is then partly chased away by the upbeat, swaying melody of “Red Mist Again”, a softer, acoustic follow-up to the album’s opener. With extra, drifting vocals courtesy Alice Battersby layered over dainty bells, it makes a pleasant, atmospheric continuation of “Red Mist Descends”; and as usual the lyrics are very witty. This time they feature the snigger-inducing line, “Tomorrow never comes, well nor does your wife”.

It’s followed by the hazy, break-up ballad, “Blimey! Drought Sky”, which ambles along with the lulling twang of the acoustic guitar underlined by resonating electric guitar notes, whilst the lyrics provide a pitiful account of someone in denial at the state of a relationship. It’s almost painful to listen to. “Dead Lions” offers no solace either. Instead, Rivers’ dulcet vocals are layered with mournful trembling organs and piercing bells that steadily build to another intense, orchestral and surging crescendo. 

Finally, the previously unreleased “Under the Rainbow” makes a gentle, welcome change from the intensity of the previous tracks. With muted, mellow drones and hushed female vocals that hover over the dainty sitar melodies, the song meanders along before fading away, bringing Suburban Crimes Of Every Happiness to a satisfying, soothing close.

And so, there is no doubt in my mind when I say that Suburban Crimes Of Every Happiness is a very good album. Skillfully blending genres as it shifts from rousing Britpop-esque anthems of suburban cynicism to moody orchestral ballads, there is never a dull nor predictable moment, all while Rivers’ fiercely intelligent lyrics are both hilarious and heart-breaking.

Clearly, the album deserves recognition this time round, already 19 years overdue. But whether this will happen? Only time will tell. 

The Bitter Springs’ Suburban Crimes Of Every Happiness is out now on digital download and limited double vinyl with a bonus CD EP, and is available to pre-order now at Tiny Global Productions’ Bandcamp page, here.

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1 Comment

  1. Beavernut
    November 4, 2020

    One of my all time favourites. Brilliant record.

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