Co Westmeath's The Academic have taken some time to release their debut album; such wise caution has paid dividends. As far back as late 2013, at a particularly memorable gig during Other Voices in Dingle, the then teenage band were fawned upon by more than a dozen record labels eager to sign them up. Collective counsel was firmly held, individual egos kept in check. They remain an independent unit.
Self-sufficiency notwithstanding, the band (vocalist/guitarist Craig Fitzgerald, guitarist Matthew Murtagh, sibling bassist Stephen Murtagh, drummer Dean Gavin, all in their early 20s) have been a notable fixture on the Irish music scene for several years. Culled from a middle-Ireland hinterland not very well known for producing anything other than overly praised yet fondly remembered showband figures (Joe Dolan), mediocre yet immensely successful pop/rock singers (Niall Horan) and highly capable pop/rock songwriters (Bressie/The Blizzards), The Academic are outsiders who have gazed towards Dublin, London and New York. Judging by their debut album, they have found what they were looking for.
One might think the anything-goes experimental times we live in – when if you so much as admit to liking an honest-to-goodness, straightforward pop song you're on the receiving end of a glance that mixes disdain with despair – has left little or no room for a musical approach that willingly goes back to basics. Tales from the Backseat, however, lands firmly on its feet, poised and positioned to prove that while left-of-centre will always have its place – and, indeed, take you to places you can only dream about – sometimes a collection of exceptionally efficient pop songs is all you need to blow away the blues.
Certainly, the album doesn’t waste its time trying to strong-arm you into making a decision. Its 10 tracks take up less than 33 minutes of your day – the words “infuriatingly catchy” spring almost too readily to mind during and after every song. The template is indie pop, but the resulting sound isn’t as blindingly obvious as you might think. When the band first started in secondary school, early influences may have been Midlands bog-standard (The Strokes, The Kooks, The Killers), but over the past few years they have sliced off the more ordinary elements and replaced them with deft pop/rock touches that tip the hat to much earlier pop groups – groups that invented the kind of pop music we now take for granted.
There is a cleverness at play among the 10 tracks, however, that will steer people away from mouthing accusations of filtering and filching. Tracks such as Bear Claws, I Feel it Too, Fake ID, Why Can't we be Friends, Girlfriend, Bit my Tongue, and Permanent Vacation, for instance, hover far above the average with hooks that dig hard and deep. At times, listening to the album turns into a game of spot-the-pioneer, but there's a nifty sleight-of-hand here that keeps the mind sharp, while the choruses simply defy you to ignore them.
If there is any mild disappointment, it's with the lyrics. As can be discerned from most of the song names – and, of course, the album title – Tales from the Backseat is a work of teenage day dreams and night moves. The emotional manoeuvring and negotiations creeping through every track could have been delivered more expertly and stealthily, and while the topics outlined are what you might expect from a batch of songs mostly written as teenagers, there's still a vain hope that the usual tropes and cliches will be avoided. Alas and alack, this is not the case ("Love is dangerous. Is it safe enough. . ." ponders Craig Fitzgerald, somewhat unnecessarily on Television), yet there is more cause for hope than concern, especially with closing track, Girlfriend, which describes emotional and life ambitions of like-minded small-town inhabitants with more eloquence than you may give credit for.
For all the naivete of the lyrics, you can tell they come from a place of fundamental honesty. Similarly the music, which is framed by familiarity but with knowing hints of what really makes the difference between then and now. This intuitive awareness (best exemplified, perhaps, on the "loop version" video for Bear Claws, which is so smart it surely had many better known bands seething with annoyance that they hadn't thought of it first) can only be put to greater use in the next 12 months.
In the meantime, sit back for 30-plus minutes for a really substantial debut pop/rock album from one of Ireland’s brightest. Here be songs custom-built to share, shout and shake your head to. Ideally, we would have liked a few more songs (just over half an hour borders on insufficient) and for a greater degree of lyrical depth, but with choruses as big and bouncy as these we don’t mind hanging around.