Issue #82: Codeine Velvet Club by Codeine Velvet Club
September 12, 2017
Released On December 28, 2009
Island & Dangerbird Records
I remember a time, when I was younger, where if I was a fan of a band or artist, I was a fan of that band. It wasn’t just that I had to know everything about them — I also had to hear everything from them, whether it was a B-Side, demo, random cover, or a new project that one of the members just formed. As you can imagine, it got pretty exhausting. There were countless late nights spent in front of my laptop either trying to keep up with the fast-moving members of collectives like Broken Social Scene, or piecing together entire discographies from people like Eric Clapton and even Pat Smear just so I could listen to the music in order if I so desired. At times, I had to deal with not one rabbit hole, but four, five, even six, leading me to make countless notes, both on my computer desktop and wooden desktop, to make sure I backtracked enough to explore them all.
It’s tiring just to think about really, but god… I really do miss that time. It led me to so many great songs, so many spectacular albums, and so many fascinating artists. It was here I discovered Codeine Velvet Club, a band that cemented my love of one great songwriter while also introducing me to a new one, who was wildly different but equally great and lovable.
Back in 2007, I had Costello Music pretty in much in constant rotation from the moment I picked it up. The football-chant hooks were fun, as well as the raucous pub style that seemed to raise the ante on garage. But that wasn’t what hooked me. It was Jon Lawler’s songwriting — his way with words and his approach to melody and structure. I loved that he had a formula, but also that he seemed aware of it enough to throw curveballs in some songs to make sure nothing got too repetitive, whether it be a 7/4 chorus section or an overblown bridge that felt like its own song. So enthralled by his songwriting, I stuck with the band even when they released a mixed bag record in Here We Stand. (Worth stating that the record does contain a few killer songs, “Mistress Mabel” among them). When their hiatus was announced in 2009 (perceived as a breakup at the time), it wasn’t too surprising. The band had run themselves ragged since their first record and it wasn’t leading to bigger and better things, so taking a step back was probably the best option. I remember thinking it wouldn’t be long until I heard from Lawler again, and only a few months later, his new project came to life in the form of an eleven-track record that showcases Lawler’s skill as a musician better than any Fratellis record ever could.
What works about Codeine Velvet Club for fans who followed from The Fratellis is that it feels both familiar and new. Lawler’s songwriting formula is at work all over the record, specifically on the strong opener “Hollywood,” but there were also clear, notable differences. Instead of frenzied guitar parts, we got bombastic horns (“Little Sister“). Instead of football chants, we got bold duets (“I Would Send You Roses.”). And, perhaps most important, it didn’t feel like you were stepping into a pub for a pint with this one, but rather some noir jazz club where red wine was mandatory (“Reste Avec Moi). This was hardly a reach for Lawler too. He always seemed to have one foot in retro sensibilities — just look at the aesthetic for The Fratellis — so this was him just dragging the other foot over and applying the same approach to melody, structure, and lyrics that made Costello Music so engaging.
But hearing Lawler in a new and invigorating context is not what makes Codeine Velvet Club special and great. That distinction falls on the band’s other member, Lou Hickey. For me, this was my introduction to the vastly talented Scottish singer who described her sound as “pop, burlesque, bitchy cabaret jazz,” but this was not her first project. In 2007, the same year I was obsessing over Costello Music, she released two fun EPs, Does It Get Easier and Do It Yourself, and it was the pre-production for her next release that led to this band forming in the first place. Hickey and Lawler teamed up to write a song for her upcoming full-length, but due to the force of that song and how well their writing styles complimented one another, Codeine Velvet Club was formed.
That song they worked on was “Vanity Kills,” the record’s second track that shows off both musicians’ talent perfectly. From Lawler, you get the loud and present sound in the form of those bombastic horns, which Hickey beautifully contrasts with a vaporous sway and slightly irascible backing vocals. That contrast is the key element of Codeine Velvet Club’s sound, specifically the way it is displayed so prominently. Despite being equally strong and tenacious, Lawler and Hickey never feel lessened or compromised within a song, even when one takes the backing role like Hickey on “Hollywood” or Lawler on “Time.” Though Lawler wrote the lion’s share of songs here, it’s undeniable that Hickey is invaluable to the record, infusing Lawler’s sound with her own voice and ideology. It makes “Begging Bowl Blues,” the only song on the album to not feature Hickey, stand-out as a sore thumb, even though the song is quite good though missing that “it” factor that so many other songs on the record have.
Hearing how strong the two complement one another, it really is a shame that the band didn’t continue. Lawler seemed to really mature and grow as a songwriter here, even while doubling down on the principles of The Fratellis and his own musical roots. Going back to Costello Music, the song “For The Girl” contains one of the most memorable lyrics Lawler has ever written. “She was into the Stones when I was into the Roses.” That distinction in musical priorities always stuck with me, and made Codeine Velvet Club’s cover of The Stone Roses’ musical obelisk “I Am The Resurrection” that much more gratifying. I’m not here to tell you that their version is better, but goddamn if the two don’t rework an eight minute Madchester epic into a four minute jazz epiphany. It really hits the mark that all great covers aspire to: stay faithful to the core of the song while exploring new sonic ground and showing off your own signature voice. In this case, we got two signature voices fueling this great version.
Now, I could bemoan the band’s premature end some more, but its dissolution did lead to Lou Hickey’s debut full length, True Love Ways, released in 2013. Songs off that record like “Zombie Love” and “Waiting For The Night” only prove that she was the “it” factor that propelled Codeine Velvet Club from enjoyable to stellar, while a pop ditty like “Minutes Hours Day” only shows that her musical charm knows no end. Lawler continued to release music too, putting out his solo album Psycho Jukebox in 2011, which contained songs more rooted in Fratellis sensibilities like the endearing “Santo Domingo,” before reuniting with his first band back in 2013.
I have to think that Codeine Velvet Club was the pinnacle for each though. It’s a rare record where two imposing musicians leave their own visible imprint on the songs without stepping on the toes of one another. You can feel the strength of each’s skill on those subsequent releases, specifically Hickey’s True Love Ways, but years later, it’s Codeine Velvet Club that towers over everything they’ve done before and since. For both of their careers, they caught lightning in a bottle with this release. Thankfully, it’s never too late to sit back and bask in the splendor of those sonic bolts.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Combine 2000s pub rock with ’60s jazz lounge & you get a record full of ingenious songwriting & melodic triumphs.
Drama! So much drama! I love it. Remember in Issue 56 when I said Asaf Avidan was singing about hungry crocodiles like Shirley Bassey might have for a Bond movie? Take that sentiment, rewind it back, and apply it double here, because Codeine Velvet Club made some seriously cinematic tunes on their self-titled album — which even features a trumpeter who played on Bond soundtracks! Take a bow, Derek Watkins! But the drama goes much deeper than simply sounding like something Roger Moore might have gallivanted to. Jon Fratelli’s voice has a great late-night smarminess that elevates every lyric (and that reminds me of Alex Turner’s singing on my favorite Arctic Monkeys album, AM). And Hollywood is everywhere, from the album’s brightly lit opening track to a moving representation of the magic of movies in “Reste Avec Moi,” where Lou Hickey sings, “Blue light fuels the daze of all those promises you made, and every love struck scene on silver screen pulls me right back in.” But my favorite example has to be “I Would Send You Roses.” There’s the impractical theatricality of the narrator’s promise, “I would send you roses every single day,” but there’s another gem just a couple of lines earlier in the chorus: “How would you feel if I told you I loved you?” It’s not the same as coming out and saying, “I love you,” is it? It’s building up to an actual “I love you,” yet it’s still directed at the second person. Does it get any more dramatic than that?
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
The question of “What artist or band do you still not ‘get’?” was recently posed to me and there are a few I could toss out there. The Fratellis has always been one of them, despite the fact that they’re a garage rock band from Glasgow. These are two things I usually love about bands because garage rock is fun and Glasgow turns out great acts. In any case, The Fratellis just never made it to the front of my listening queue. As such, Codeine Velvet Club’s connection to the group thrust no weight down upon my initial listening experience for the former’s self-titled debut and in a way, this was a good thing. Connections be damned, it’s fascinating that Codeine Velvet Club didn’t manage to really make things stick past the one record — not only because of the presumed carry over of fans but because the personas and character put forth by the group are not of the usual late 2000s trends. The lead single alone, “Vanity Kills,” is a melodically strong, instrumentally diverse piece that instantly creates a setting and a mood in the mind. Sliding vocals and accidental notes that momentarily bend the melody into the space between major and minor, combine with the delightfully deep “wah” of a solid baritone sax to start the record off with a distinctly old fashioned flavor, like something out of a late night cabaret club. Though much less downbeat heavy and faster in tempo, second single, “Hollywood,” is like the other side of the same coin with a music video that matches the above imagined staging of “Vanity Kills,” using anything but the typical generic aesthetic of “band playing in front of a camera.” Codeine Velvet Club is determined not to just be background music or even settle for supporting the vibe of the room where its played. This album creates the vibes and controls them with every new track. Think you’re ready for a lighter drink at the bar and a breather from the dance floor? “Little Sister“‘s clapping and count heavy guitar, drum, and sax hook grabs you by the collar and demands either a shot with a snappy finish or, that you bust some defined and confident moves with a partner or with the spotlight all on you — an irony in plain sight when considering the main lyrics of the chorus (“Hey little sister just slow down, slow down”). This signature recipe of low notes, accented downbeats, and loud and clear vocals (no drowning in Scottish accents here!) plays out in a variety of ways on the self-titled; sliding from the bell of the sax to the left hand of the piano (“I Would Send You Roses“), which gives the album airtight sonic consistency. Perhaps that’s its only weak point: a little too much of a sameness? But such picking feels harshly neurotic for an overall arrangement that isn’t a widely distorted telecaster and fuzz filtered vocals like the garage rock stereotype beckons it be. The sameness, if any, is perfectly level for a debut record and is only as much as is needed for a clear musical through line. The attitude and sass encasing this catchy core makes Codeine Velvet Club sound like anything but an uncertain new kid on the block, despite being a “first record.” Consequently, we’ve come full circle to the question of, “Why didn’t this band do better and last longer?” The reason for the band’s confusingly short shelf life? Perhaps it can be found right in line with the lyrics of its own work: “Life’s a roll of a dice / but you’ll pay the price / When that curtain falls.”
Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier
The dreamy landscapes of Codeine Velvet Club’s self-titled record are impressive. Take a walk down loungey paths into an array of melody and swing, and you’ll find yourself in their world. The band has ties to The Fratellis (a long time love of mine) and their influences guide them into the realm of purely loveable euro-indie-rock. This is the kind of music that has existed and evolved for decades, and boy, is it fascinating to see it change with the tick of time or what? Bands in this genre typically stick to the Velvet Underground worship and, as fun as it is, it tends to get stale and oversaturated with leather jacket clad lads. However, Codeine Velvet Club is fresh in delivery and as exciting to hear as the first time I saw Peter Doherty croon and jive to “Last Of The English Roses.” With every track on this album, there’s a new twist or a new key. You’re not going to find a repetitive or overdrawn song, and in fact, things are kept interesting via the beautiful tones of the guitars and the natural composition of the tracks. It’s a shame this band is no longer active, because I can imagine the songs in a live setting with energy and gusto. The influences in cabaret are strong here too, and there’s something very “big band” about the outfit. This element only adds to the fun. If your insatiable appetite for good UK indie rock is in need of something unique and well-blended, look no further — Codeine Velvet Club is here.
Catherine Dempsey (@coffincutieee)
Emo Kid Seeking Hardcore Band
In the song, you have the wall of sound drowning out the lyrics’ hollow sentiment, while the video offers shimmering, golden lights that fill an otherwise vacant space.
Like the first album by Arctic Monkeys spin-off The Last Shadow Puppets, this Fratellis side-project is an excellent foray into the cinematic pop of an earlier era, mostly of the kind popular in Great Britain. There are hints of The John Barry Seven, Scott Walker, Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark, and others, but Jon Lawler and Lou Hickey pay homage without any kitschy self-consciousness. That means you don’t have to know anything about the record-collector side of the project, just enjoy the bold melodies, dramatic orchestrations, and sheer gusto they put into the music. You also don’t have to like, or even know The Fratellis or Hickey’s solo work to fall hard for this concoction. If you’re unsure where to begin, start with “Like A Full Moon,” a badass wannabe James Bond theme with all the twanging tremelo guitar and sweeping strings that implies, with a nice touch of S&M to boot. Or press play on “Nevada,” perhaps the most reflective cut, its lilting rhythm carrying the listener along like an autumn leaf blowing down the path ahead of you, shading into the wondrous realms explored by The Clientele. “The Black Roses” is diabolical fun, electric sitar goading Lawler into an impassioned performance leading into a chorus as big as the British Empire. Perhaps they go too far with the brassy Gypsy Rose Lee ambiance of “Little Sister,” but you have to respect them for pushing the limits of their own conception. If not for the death of Steely Dan’s Walter Becker, I would have spent more time in the Codeine Velvet Club this week, but I look forward to having more of its delights reveal themselves in the future. Apply for membership today.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
September is the month work begins. Quiet settles into space left by summer, somewhere in between the sunny days and chilly nights, and it is inside that space where writing, planning, teaching are reborn. Ingrained in my circadian rhythm, the academic calendar that has ruled my life since I was five brings a heavy focus on work this time of the year. At my desk, late in the week, I put on Codeine Velvet Club as a backdrop to writing an in-house manual on incorporating purposeful movement into lessons with no expectation of what I was about to hear. Opening the album is “Hollywood,” a track that burst into my headphones with the exuberance and festivity resembling, of all things, a Christmas track. Swingy and joyful, vocals crooning over a drumline that bounces between up and down, there’s an energy there that pushes off the album, that propelled me forward in that work. What’s felt in the beat of “Hollywood” shows up throughout the album in a playful mixing of influence. Technically labeled baroque rock, I hear more a willingness to play with sound in a mature mindset about the product. Young bands will sometimes copy other bands they admire with such a faithfulness the end result is almost a cover album, or veer the other way and pull in so many influences you just hear a crude collage of sound cut and pasted from a bunch of discernible bands. Here, though, Codeine Velvet Club’s clear love of music blends into a rock, swing, rockabilly, alternative sound underlined with classical, beach rock, and big band elements to produce the best kind of work – fun and easy until you pay attention and realize how much sophisticated attention to detail went into its creation.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
Once I heard an interview with famed producer Mark Ronson where he was talking about how people always knew he produced a song because of “those fucking horns.” While Ronson has since ditched the horns, you can hear his influence in the Scottish indie rock band Codeine Velvet Club’s 2009 self-titled release — not just in CVC’s expert use of a horn section, but also in the clean, ’60s-influenced production. In addition to horns, CVC is not afraid of moody, super British-sounding ballads (“Nevada“). Or an orchestra. Or just straightforward, catchy-as-fuck rock songs (“I Would Send You Roses“). Or being influenced by (gulp!) big band (“Vanity Kills“). You may know Jon Lawler from his work in The Fratellis, who came on to the scene at the tail end of the “golden age of indie rock,” but CVC adds a female voice, Lou Hickey. Hickey serves as a great balance to Lawler, who can sound a bit bratty on his own. Her warm, vintage-y voice, brings a darker, noir-esque mood to CVC. The album suffers a little when she’s not on it (“Begging Bowl Blues“), but I am also extremely biased towards female singers. About ten years ago, I listened to The Stone Roses’ “I Am The Resurrection” every single day (I was going through some shit, ok?). It is a perfect song. Did we need a cover of this perfect song? Probably not, but Codeine Velvet Club do it justice, removing half the length of the song (John Squire’s pulsating guitar & breakdown at the end) and adding in (what else?) horns.
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
Two radiantly imposing musicians who effortlessly make their prescence felt throughout the entire album.
The cover of Codeine Velvet Club’s self-titled debut album depicts a woman wearing a head scarf, trench coat, and gloves sitting alone in a diner with a single ice cream sundae — all of which hints at a kind of throwback Americana pop that is certainly delivered. Maximalism is the ethos here — many songs feel like they might tip over from how much instrumentation gets stuffed in: strings and horns and guitars and percussion and keyboards and two lead vocalists (oh my!). There’s some lounge-y theatricality as well, in that the band never stays in one feeling for even a single song, sometimes changing tempo or time signature for a chorus or bridge. And though this might seem cumbersome for what is, at its core, a pop album, there are some serious hits here. “Hollywood” is about as great an opener as any record out there, the rhythmically charged, tambourine-propelled pop song only letting up its relentless forward movement for its disgustingly catchy hemiola-hooked chorus. “Nevada” is another irresistible track, a waltzy, romantic, moonlit number filled with swelling strings and a sighing melodic line sung in unison by both vocalists, John Fratelli and Lou Hickey. Not every song is as compelling, and the thickness of sound can get a bit exhausting in one sitting with so much going on in every single track, but these small quibbles don’t diminish all the other great things happening. Codeine Velvet Club is bold and cheeky, a full retro spectacle that goes there fearlessly and takes me nearly wholeheartedly along for the ride.
David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer
This album hooked me almost from the very beginning with its horns and background singers in the opening track. When it turned out that the “background singers” was actually the lead female vocalist and that she would handle the lion’s share of the album’s singing, I was completely sold. I love how this album feels simultaneously completely modern and super retro. For instance, the hook of the opener, “Hollywood,” wouldn’t be out of place in a 1960s lounge act, but no one would mistake it for actually being from the 1960s. Besides the robust opener, I gravitate strongly towards “Time.” I’ve always been a sucker for changing tempo between verse and chorus, a trick that “Time” expertly executes, and it’s just another little trick or quirk that makes this album complex and diverse, while also being accessible and familiar. Love it.
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
I was working at a college radio station when Codeine Velvet Club released this album, and yet somehow I never came upon it — not even in passing. I don’t think I would have listened to it much on my own at that point in my life, but I certainly think that I would have at least heard of the band. But that’s the whole point of Off Your Radar, is it not? Codeine Velvet Club may have slipped by me nearly a decade ago, but for the better part of four days, it’s been on repeat. Collaborative projects that also double as a side project for one of the members like this tend to get lots of comparisons to said member’s main gig — The Horrible Crowes were often called a “Tom Waits-version of The Gaslight Anthem” and I know plenty of folks who consider Them Crooked Vultures to be an unofficial Queens Of The Stone Age album — but as someone who isn’t familiar with The Fratellis at all (Okay, I’m sure I know at least one of their singles but I don’t know it by name), I feel like I can enjoy this album without having to think to myself “Hey, this is nothing more than an unused song from a Fratellis album.” I find myself more drawn to the upbeat tracks here: “Vanity Kills” is a great single, and if it had been released in the same era as “Hate To Say I Told You So” and “Get Free,” I’m positive it would have made some waves on the charts. Similarly, both “Little Sister” and “I Would Send You Roses” infuse the band’s ’60s big band sound with the in-your-face swagger of the garage rock revival, and they’ve got exactly the type of energy that makes me wish I could have seen Codeine Velvet Club live. Not to imply that the slower tunes make the band seem boring. “Reste Avec Moi” makes me wish I enjoyed red wine so I could sit in some dark club with a friend, drinking while it plays in the background. But then I listen to “The Black Roses” again and I wish that this hypothetical dark club didn’t have seats at all and everyone crowded around the stage. It’s always unfair to discover a band years after they’ve already split up and this occasion is no different.
Dustin Gates (@cmoncheermeup)
Relapsed Pop Culture Junkie
Swingin’ With Raymond by Chumbawamba
Chosen By Dustin Gates