Just because singer Stavros Polentas garbles his words like a shit-tanked, heartbroken Joe Strummer doesn't mean Secret French Kissing Society sounds anything close to the Clash. On the contrary, despite Polentas' obvious, loutish affectations, he writes profoundly powerful, cinematic, alt-rock vignettes, gothic tales of harsh life, harsher love, and unlikely redemption. All through his vocal and thematic gestalt, Polentas' band -- bassist Jessie Steele and drummer Chuck Britzmayr -- stays wrapped tightly around his schizoid guitar, building or bending at his every nuance. If you've ever seen SFKS live, you know these guys are masters of mood, able to scream through blistering, abstract noise into hushed, numbed lulls of acoustic guitar and calm vocals. First Blood veers maniacally through similar extremes, often within the same number. It's not so much volume or speed that drives songs like "Dirty" (with the wince-inducing line, "I'm a wolf at the door/gonna eat you alive/fuck you hard like a whore") and "Church on Sundays" (with a rosy, flamenco-punk trumpet) into self-flagellated friction. Rather, it's Polentas' art-damaged voice dragging deeper and deeper into the pit of self-loathing that imbues these songs with righteous drama. Far-off piano inflicts further gravitas on already-somber tunes like "Bruised Noodles" and the haunting "Black & White Cartoons," where Polentas' lyricism shines through the dusky cobwebs of the music's mood: "I've got a bag full of god if I wanna get high/A small collection of quotes that I stole on the sly/I've got a house and a home and grave when I die." There's plenty of volume as well, in the crescendos that come at the end of "A Silent Film for the Blind" and "Lonely Balloon." These long, panoramic songs earn their angst through incisive songwriting and scathing musicianship. Settle in, have patience, and forget your Clash collection. Secret French Kissing Society has its own epic story to tell.
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