Still Life is the debut album by south London’s Little Cub. Its eleven songs marry a wry, worldly and subversive form of diarist lyricism with sumptuously evocative electronic production, announcing the arrival of a band at once deeply in tune with the greatest traditions of progressive, homespun British pop music and at odds with the increasingly vacuous pop culture they are born into.
Whilst now residing and writing in Peckham, the Little Cub genesis story (and every great band needs one, no matter how prosaic) actually begins in the banker-belt ennui of Dorking, Surrey. The leafy commuter town is wedged snugly between the A24 and the A25, boasting three train stations that ferry thousands of city workers to and from Waterloo twice hourly every day. Oscar Wilde liked to give his marginal characters’ addresses in Dorking. As did Charles Dickens. It’s the sort of faceless suburban hinterland that J.G. Ballard was obsessed with. A place on the fringe; almost mysterious in its dullness, a canvas on to which a fertile imagination can project all sorts of sordid possibility but ultimately somewhere where nothing much ever really happens.
It was in this less than illustrious setting that Dominic Gore and Duncan Tootill, two of Little Cub’s three primary members, first met by chance. The occasion was a public jazz session in a dreary church hall sometime in Spring 2013. Gore had recently moved back to the area after a stint in London following a family bereavement and was looking for literally anything in terms of some light escape; Tootill was back in the UK with family having moved away to the USA a couple of years prior. The two hit it off over a shared love of James Murphy’s seminal DFA Records, early Aphex Twin and New Order and before long began meeting up to share ideas for original songs alongside Ady Acolatse, whom Gore had met on a night out in the blare and glare of Fabric nightclub the previous summer.
Tootill soon left to return to New York City where he took a place at a prestigious music school, leaving Gore and Acolatse behind to continue writing. Originally starting life as poems, many of Still Life’s songs emerged lyrically around this period, with a still-mourning Gore throwing himself into writing as therapy. Much of this writing would take place during shifts in the day at a bookshop in south West London where Gore worked in the poetry section for several years, making most of the peace and quiet to delve into the works of Auden, Larkin, Wilde and Ballard – all writers interested in the themes of middle class decay, moral degradation and self-effacing provincial English humour which constitute the lyrical tropes of Still Life.
With an insatiable Tootill now in New York, the trio forged a long distance relationship with Gore’s lyrics providing the foundations of the songs and Acolatse bringing the harmonic palette and feel, translating Gore’s melodies into vibrant life. The ideas would then be bounced across the Atlantic for Tootill to embellish and produce. The progress made via email back and forth was swift enough and sufficiently exciting to convince Tootill to move back to London and pursue the project in earnest and so he did in the summer of 2014. What emerged is the warm, dynamic, modular sound of Still Life, with elements of house, techno and ambient reflective of the group’s evolving taste coalescing with fruits of a shared jazz background and indie sensibility to provide the perfect landscape for Gore’s tight, almost hymn-like verses on the trials and tribulations of 21st century living .
“Snow” was the first song Gore wrote and is a raw, wounded elegy for his mother with glacial synths piling on top of one another beneath a sturdy rolling bassline in a build which is almost bleak in its studied restraint before bursting into a gorgeous vocoder motif. It’s emotionally eviscerating in places but also benefits from a poetic detachment which marks out much of Gore’s writing, where even the purest and most difficult emotion is subjected to scrutiny. Still Life’s first single, “Loveless”, finds itself immersed in a similar idea, centring on a relationship Acolatse was in at the time. “Did we really lose our hearts?”, the soaring chorus ponders with an odd and infectious kind of triumphant melancholy. “I was perceiving this relationship between two great people”, he says, “but could see it was kind of becoming less than the sum of its parts. It was neither party’s fault but it was clear that both were coming colder through the very nature of being together. It’s about how every time you have a relationship like that it seems to remove a part of you; you can lose your heart a little. Of course this should be horribly sad, and in a way it is, but I also think it might be in a way necessary and so the song’s not completely mourning that loss.”
Another of the album’s stand out tracks, “Hypnotise” sees Gore turn a sobering, perceptive gaze towards politics, his wilfully detached mantras marching atop a militaristic looped drum-roll as he drolly paints a picture of nihilistic indifference in the face of unanswerable political and corporate corruption. It’s dystopic stuff on the surface but delivered with a powder-dry sense of humour which pitches the narrator somewhere between establishment and protester, like a mischievous newspaper sketch writer. Instead of negating its effect, this humour actually makes the overall message – that there are no easy fixes in a society as riven with inequality as ours – even more desperate; a rhetoric trick often repeated with great effect throughout Still Life.
“Does this country have any faith in integrity or promises in politics?” asks Gore. “This song is kind of about wanting to protest, and obviously believing that there are a lot of things that need protesting, but not really knowing where to start in a way which is self-aware. How do we overcome our own feelings of hypocrisy when we’re all in ways complicit in this stuff? I wanted the tone of this to sound almost naive and sixth form, the narrator’s meant to sound stupid even, sitting around all day reading left-leaning articles on Facebook but not really actually feeling any inclination to help anyone… it almost becomes obnoxious and childish, sort of like Charlie Gilmour swinging from the cenotaph…”
The deep, nocturnal groove of “My Nature”, the album’s most club-ready track, is another meditation on politics of a different kind and whilst it may come on strong initially we soon learn that no pleasure is simple and no truth immutable in the world of Still Life. “Your pleasure is paid for by another heart” sings Gore wistfully and what could easily be a lascivious dancefloor come-on quickly reveals itself as something far more complex and conflicted as the verses unravel. Virtue or the lack thereof in human interaction is another theme picked up upon on the glistening house pulse of album opener “Too Much Love”, Gore turning his self-reflexive fire on the emotionally defective male who presents insensitivity as bravado and lack of ability to commit as an affliction worthy of sympathy as opposed to a fundamentally selfish lifestyle choice. “And if I asked you a personal question, I’d probably ask you what you wanted to drink?” he deadpans, just one of the many one-liners on the track worthy of a jobbing late night television comedian.
It is funny stuff but also brutally jarring here in just how uncomfortably relatable some of the sentiments are, regardless of how cartoonishly they are delivered. Far from being a narrator the listener wants to relate to, here is one you may find yourself desperately trying to distance yourself from. Gore’s skill as a writer and a performer is to project an undeniable charisma on to these characters which make it easier said than done. It’s a technique that recalls Neil Tennant’s pathos-laden character as much as that of Josh Tillman’s misanthropic Father John Misty, albeit with a distinctly English tone and tuning. Meanwhile Tootill and Acolatse’s music glistens and shimmers, swells and propels in ways that feel so good as to mask the flawed humanity being paraded. This is party music that comes as a price, hedonism which is well aware of the two-day hangover on the horizon.
“Too Much Love”, and indeed much of the album is loosely thematically based on the Oscar Wilde quote “I represent all the sins you will never have the courage to commit”, Gore explains. “Dorian Gray is a character I was fascinated by at the time of writing a lot of these songs, fascinated by but hopefully in self-aware enough of a way to realise how unpleasant parts of that mind-set are. I’d been going out a lot and was becoming really jaded with it, getting to a point where you feel like you’re going to these places and no-one is interested in you anymore, which is largely because you’re not interested in being there. You start to feel old even though you’re not and you start behaving in ways you possibly never thought you would when you were younger and more idealistic.”
Be it politics of the Westminster kind or those of a more personal kind, Still Life is an album which takes a refreshingly honest, responsible and occasionally painful look at where we’re at today, couching these complex sentiments in music which is immediate, fun and rewarding at a time when far too much pop music is happy to either revel in hedonistic ignorance or retreat to ham-fisted, howl-at-the-wind protest sloganareering.
“I think a lot of the songs on the album do take quite a withering view of human nature, at least on the surface” concludes Gore, “but actually it’s an attempt at inclusion really. I think most of the condemnation is directed at least as much inwards as outwards. It’s actually kind of an attempt at relation. “It’s sort of saying, ‘I’m a bit shit, are you a bit shit too? And finding common ground through that, being okay with it.”