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I first became aware of Van Tramp when they were confirmed as one of the support acts for the Sugababes recent tour. When I discovered they would be playing the show I had tickets for, I had a look on MySpace to see what I would be letting myself in for. I expected to find some new boy band that I wouldn't really enjoy, but instead discovered that they played the kind of soft rock music I tend to enjoy. Whilst I knew I'd like them, I didn't think they'd go down quite so well with the usual Sugababes fans.
As it turned out, due to promotional work only two of the band could make it and they played an acoustic show, which went down very well. Possibly helped by the singer, Tim, having the kind of cheeky grin that has probably got him into (and back out of!) all sorts of trouble. Whilst their acoustic work was pretty impressive, I preferred the rockier sound I'd heard on My Space and the chance to get their debut album and get it signed for £5 was too good to pass up. After all, I expected to enjoy it and I was right, although repeated listens have dulled my initial enthusiasm a little.
Opening track "Hope & Pray" is the perfect introduction to the band, highlighting Tim's soulful vocals, combined with the bluesy music, with a slight country tinge. It reminds me a little of something like the Jayhawks or Proud Mary, although the vocals make it sound like James Morrison. It's a mid tempo song, with a decent blues guitar riff and whilst it won't shake your world first time out, it is a decent enough song.
The next track starts in pretty much the same vein, as if the band are trying to lay down a sense of their sound. "The Garden" is another mid tempo pop-rock song, but has a little less of the country influence and a little more of a laid back bluesy vibe. The combination of the music and the vocals makes it sound a little like Rod Stewart and the Faces, which perhaps isn't too much of a surprise, seeing as vocalist Tim played the Rod Stewart role in the musical "Tonight's the Night". There are a couple of decent lyrical ideas here as well, with my favourite being the colourful and evocative "Now the fire in your eyes / Has sunset on the tones"
There's a touch of the country influence once again in the intro to the next track, "Something". It's a much slower song, with a very laid-back feel and a prominent bass guitar and organ. Whilst the organ gives the song a 60s feel to it, the vocals make me think of James Morrison a little more. Unfortunately, the slow pace makes this seem a little duller than some of the earlier tracks and it's not one of my favourites, as there isn't enough happening in the song for me.
In contrast, the next track, "New England" is the first time Van Tramp really shake things up and go for an all out rock track. You'd never guess this from the intro, as it starts quite slowly and I keep thinking they're about to break into "The Star Spangled Banner", which would be a very strange thing for a band of Londoners with a Canadian singer to do. The song is far more up-tempo and with a much more rock influence than any of the others and it sounds a bit like The Alarm and very much like U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name" in parts. As more of a rock fan, this is definitely to my taste and whilst I've enjoyed the more laid-back feel of the earlier tracks, this is a definite favourite at this point on the album.
Next up is "Help Me Make It", which starts out like an acoustic ballad, although a much better attempt than "Something". There's a decent acoustic guitar riff that helps lead things on in the early part of the song and it expands and gets louder as it goes on. Some of the lyrics here are worth a listen as well, as lines like "A fallen angel stares into my eyes / Late night bars and big old cars / Crash inside my head" and "shooting stars and twisted stripes collide" always make me think of fireworks going off somewhere behind my eyes.
There's another country influenced guitar sound to the intro to the next track, "Youtopia". There's also a faint indie undertone, which makes the song sound a lot like something the Stereophonics would have come up with. Ultimately, though, it's a bland mid-tempo country-tinged rock track, with the most interesting thing about it being the play on words that is the title.
There's a very low key start to "Happy Now", which starts the second half of the album. It does liven up a little bit and there's a decent blues influenced guitar solo quite late on in the track. Mostly, though, this is just a mid-tempo rock-pop track, which Tim's soulful vocal being the highlight and it's another bland moment.
Right from the very first play of the album, "Before You" has been my favourite track. Partly because it reflected events in my life at the time, but also because it's one of the rare rock moments on the album. There's a distortion on the opening chords and again later on that gives the guitar an almost grunge feel and from there on in it's a song with quite a heavy blues-rock edge, which harks back to the Faces in both the music and the vocals.
Sadly, this wasn't to be continued and the following track, "Coming Up For Air" is another bland moment, right from the very start. It's a mid tempo pop number with a slightly psychedelic influence that harks back to some of the music from the 1960s. Mostly, it drifts along quite happily, but it's not a song that really impinges itself on your conscious mind. It's certainly a different kind of sound for the band, but it's not a difference that should be encouraged.
What should be encouraged is more like "Just Listen", which starts with a gorgeous guitar riff that mixes blues and rock and soon adds in a jaunty little bass line that makes this perfect walking around music. It's another decent rock song, possibly musically even better than "Before You", although without the personal associations. There's a certain Faces influence through the whole song here and it's great to hear Tim really let his voice loose.
Penultimate track "Let It Go" once again fails to keep the rockier side of the band going, but it's not such a bad song. It's another mid tempo track, with a few psychedelic influences, but there's a hint of Rod Stewart in the vocals which helps give it a slight blues tone once more. It's still not a great track, but it does sound better than some of the other mind tempo songs thanks to that minor blues influence to both the vocal and some of the music and there are a couple of decent lyrical moments here as well.
The album closes on a more rock moment, with the closing track "Seventeen" opening with a slightly darker feel and the lyrics reflect this. The whole song really lets the band cut loose and you get a decent pop-rock song which sounds a little like the Stereophonics for the most part. There's a lovely blues influenced guitar solo and Tim's vocals are again to the fore and sounding great.
After a few minutes of dead air, there's a hidden track that I can't work the name out for. Whatever it's called, it has a jaunty little bass line which helps drive along a blues influenced number which once more sounds a lot like the Faces, although there's a gospel influence to later parts of the track, thanks to the backing vocals. There's also the wonderful line "When it's all too much / You were my vinyl church", which is a great line for someone like me who will frequently seek refuge in music.
Overall, this is a superb album and from the first time I heard it, I adored it. Admittedly, after repeated listens it does start to lose some of the appeal, but it's a very rare album that does that and in the case of this album, even that took several months of listening to very little else. This is an album that has some great high points and even the low points aren't bad, just a little bland and not quite in keeping with their own high standards.
There's nothing terribly new here, as they sound too much like the Faces to claim originality, but there is a lot to be enjoyed. Sadly, with their middle of the road retro style, they probably won't be as big as they deserve to be. If you enjoy pop rock with a slight blues influence, or if you're old enough to have remembered the Faces and liked them, this is an album worth having. Any fan of the Stereophonics will most likely be impressed as well, especially with prices from as little as a penny on eBay or from £4.74 at the Amazon Marketplace, for what is 55 minutes of quality blues tinged pop rock.