Embrace / Manchester Ritz / 31 March 2018
You stay around long enough, someone will call you a survivor, as if you’ve made it through something and come out the other side, scarred and battleworn and all the more impressive for it. Embrace formed in 1990 – if you can believe that – although they spent the better part of half a dozen years honing their material, trading under different names, and fine-tuning their line-up before hitting their version of the big time with the release of their first album, The Good Will Out in 1998. ‘Old survivor’ is a term that often crops up in reviews of Embrace, and it’s a double-edged sword: on the one hand, a handful of the bands who came to prominence at the same time (Verve, we’re looking at you) imploded, are no more, have ceased to be; on the other, some of the bands went on to bigger and better things (Coldplay won’t be playing the Ritz any time soon but neither will Snow Patrol for that matter, and it tells you something about Embrace – but we’ll get to it). Embrace plough their particular furrow and if the reaction of the sold-out Ritz is anything to go by, there are people who absolutely love what they do.
They kick off the night with ‘Wake Up Call’ from their sixth and latest album, Love is a Basic Need (one of six songs from the new record they play), and sharpishly follow it with ‘All You Good Good People’ from their ‘98 debut. Everybody in the place sings along as if they are lined up on the football terraces rather than the bouncy floor of the Ritz. When he isn’t singing, frontman Danny McNamara has a way of goading the crowd that puts him somewhere between Liam Gallagher and Tim Burgess, and if he isn’t waggling his fingers as if to say, ‘come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’, he’s poised on his tip toes sharing his gunshow with us. Danny’s brother, Richard, is quick with the odd crack or two about how people come to see them because of the eye candy… But they don’t banter like the Gallaghers, they’re on the same side these two, intent on getting to the bottom of the puzzle: why is it, if their latest album gets to number 5 in the album charts, if they play to sell out audiences – why is it they aren’t bigger, more appreciated, spoken of as if they mattered? Introducing Someday ‘from our fourth album, Out of Nothing’, Danny asks, ‘how many of you bought this then?’ About half the audience put their hands in the air. ‘And the rest of you are listening to it on Spotify, yeah?’ You can feel it nag at them. They come back to it again and again throughout the night.
The answer is in the songs – for every ‘Come Back to What You Know’ (audience lose their collective shit) there is a ‘Rabbit Hole’ (audience goes to the bar). By which we mean, for every anthemic crowd-pleaser, there is another in which the anthemic teeters into bombast. Bombast is very much Embrace’s weakness. Nowhere is this contrast felt so keenly as when Danny leaves the stage so his brother can take vocal lead duties – we get ‘Where You Sleeping’, which sounds like a Manics b-side, and then we get ‘Refugees’, which might just be their best song currently. The audience politely endure ‘Where You Sleeping’ and then go all kinds of mental for ‘Refugees’ – and you can’t help but wonder why the electronica on show in ‘Refugees’ was just a diversion for the band and not some bold new direction. More importantly, you can’t help but wonder if the band can see it too.
There’s a lesson in the last song of the night, ‘The Good Will Out’, another standout from their ‘98 debut. “You won’t know how well you’ve played,” he sings, “Until you’ve won.” But it’s not as simple as that, is it? Making music isn’t a game of winning and losing. Courteeners frontman Liam Fray might name-check The National in his songs but he knows his isn’t a band for quiet introspection. Courteeners are all about that Saturday night out with your mates and that is as authentic as it gets – and that’s fine. Both the McNamaras could learn from watching The Courteeners. They’re that kind of band, and that’s authentic. Know it and run with it, and stop fretting about whether you warrant a place in the great rock pantheon in the sky.
by Peter Wild