Is the art of making albums a dying one? It’s possible. Streaming culture gives us access to more music than we can ever hope to listen to and the prevalence of playlists encourages us to flit with fickle glee from artist to artist, like a hungry man given free reign to raid the buffet table.
Well, that may be so, but if ‘Employee of the Month’ tells us anything it’s that this once revered and ubiquitous musical form is not ready to be consigned to the cultural dumpster just yet. Where some bands are content to serve up the ‘some killer, mainly filler’ configuration, too terrified to veer far from whatever they’re best known for, Stephen EvEns head honcho aka Stephen Gilchrist, along with a group of collaborators including Jimi Scandal and Hurtling’s Jen Macro on additional guitars, has clearly expended way more than the average amount of time, judgment and energy in making what you might call a ‘proper’ album.
The pre-album single ‘Dustbin Man’ gets us underway, multi-instrumentalist Gilchrist bashing out a heavy groove over which he bemoans the denigration of the humble dustbin man and the nurse by the ruling class. “Keep do what you’re doing,” he implores them, “though the pay is atrocious.” It all sounds horribly familiar – and it’s supposed to.
Let’s be honest, an album full of rabble -rousing anthems like this would have been a pretty reasonable prospect in its own right. But, as it turns out, it’s just the tip of the iceberg that‘s waiting to be explored. ‘Push Yr Thumb In Yr Eye’ is slow, crunching and brutally executed, its lyrics full of trembling malice. ‘Claude’, on the other hand, speeds off like a joyrider being chased by the police, continuing the vibe of raw garage rock with hidden depths occasionally coming into view.
But ‘Employee of the Month’ keeps opening out, further and further, as it progresses. ‘Freak Show’ is basically Stephen’s singing accompanied only by labelmate William D Drake playing heart-tugging piano, unexpectedly sad and poignant. ‘John Snow’ uses a shuffling baggy beat to pay tribute to the godfather of epidemiology – we kid you not – its opening line “something’s lurking in the water” truly spine tingling. ‘George & Kathleen’ is a sincere love song, violin and cello softly embellishing its simple sentiments.
If that sounds like it’s getting a little civilized, fret not. ‘I Hate Shop I Am Shop’, arguably the most thrilling moment on the album, has an almost glam rock ballsiness, driven home by mob rule backing vocals, as Stephen has an existential crisis about the agony of everyday mundanity. The album’s closer ‘The Day I Burned My House Down’, meanwhile, starts off like a chirpy, cheeky Madness track, but delves into more intense territory here and there, both lyrically and musically, Nicola Baigent’s squawking saxophone rising above the mix.
It’s got a real ‘credits roll’ feel to it, as any closing track should. ‘Employee of the Month’, after all, is quite the widescreen epic once you start letting its magic work on you. A job well done, you’d have to say.