Houdini Dax’s debut album, the irresistible You Belong to Dax Darling, was a thrilling kaleidoscope of harmonious ’60s pop, semi-skimmed psychedelic, and art school rock that should, all things being equal, have made teenagers household names. in the Principality. Even though the album failed to make its mark, stalling the band’s career in the process, the power-pop trio still seemed like a safe bet to fully realize their ‘most likely band’ ambitions. No one, back then, could have considered the trials and tribulations the group would have to overcome just to set foot in the recording studio again!
After four years of endless gigs, imaginative fundraising (playing Christmas Eve gigs at fans’ homes) and, more recently, emergency busking (the boys had £10,000 worth of equipment stolen from the back of his truck in March) the gang has, at last, completed their herculean task. However, the £64,000 dollar question must be asked; Was it worth all the back-breaking work, all the heartache and disappointment, all the battling windmills along the way?
The opening song “Apple Tree”, one of the most outstanding singles of the summer, is a great evidence that Houdini Dax is still a very special band. A fast-paced, effervescent number, as slick and shallow as a Preston Sturges script, would have gone triple platinum in the hands of Marc Bolan or XTC. Sometimes timing is everything! Up next is “Legs,” a big-boned pop song that showcases the band’s elegant rhythm section – Owen Richards (bass) and David Newington (drums) – as well as singer Jack Butler’s acerbic goldsmithing.
“She’s my purple power ranger, she’s my Lara Croft / She’s my pre-Botox Cameron Diaz / She’s my Easter bunny, she’s my Christmas elf / She’s the worst magazine on the top shelf.”
Butler’s grim kitchen sink vignettes are usually left with a dash of dark humor, putting him somewhere between Chris Difford and Alex Turner on the British songwriting spectrum. In fact, “Found Love at the Dole Office” (based on a young couple who witnessed them get too close for comfort on the job market) is as comically moving as anything Squeeze or Arctic Monkeys have ever recorded.
‘I went to the Old Arcade / To break a coin and have a lemonade / I saw a girl who didn’t understand me / She was too pretty for her own good / I found love in the Dole office / I couldn’t get a job, but I have a kiss’.
It’s a good observational piece, a trick Butler repeats in the colorful character study “Good Old-Fashioned Maniac” about a drug-damaged hustler who loses control of life.
“It’s got more get up and go than the Antiques Roadshow / Travel from Tiger Bay to South Bordeaux / Take five steps forward and five steps back / ‘Cause he’s a good old-fashioned maniac.”
The soggy harmony of “Let’s Stick Together” is monstrously catchy, as is the guttural “Get Your Goo On.” Long the centerpiece of the band’s live show, thanks to its Mickey Spillane riff deck, it loses nothing in the transition to a studio setting. Any momentum lost with the somewhat plodding “All These Days” is quickly regained with the wonderful instrumental “Crack Dance.” If ever the ‘International Man of Mystery’ Austin Powers leaves his retirement home in search of overdressed secret agents, this could be his new theme song! The gut-wrenching “Roll on Up” has the compulsively addictive chorus we’ve come to expect from the band, however the title track proves to be something of a slow burner, meaning the album ends on a rather low key.
The curious omission of “Our Boy Billy” and “Struggling in the Sand” means that the second half of the album fades slightly. For the most part, though, it’s a spectacular comeback from arguably the best guitar band in the British Isles. Naughty Nation is an absolute delight – more fun than playing with your shiny new Scalextric on Christmas morning!