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Review: Sundara Karma – Youth is Only Ever Fun in Retrospect

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Youth is Only Ever Fun in Retrospect is a pretty cynical name for the debut album of a young indie band, whose exciting music will no doubt draw the admiration of a demographic currently in the midst of such youth. But then again, the lyrics on this record seem to be sung by someone who knows adolescence and all its travails inside out, but is less certain about what comes next.

Led by Oscar Pollock, a frontman armed with a voice (and name) reminiscent of that of The Maccabees’ Orlando Weeks, the Reading-based four-piece Sundara Karma dropped their debut LP last month, having begun building anticipation over a year ago with the release of two EPs and a steady stream of singles thereafter. In this way, the band’s career trajectory up to this point bears comparison to the beginnings of Birmingham export Peace, and their music isn’t so dissimilar at times, either. The group are about to embark on tour supporting Two Door Cinema Club – an impressive accolade – however, it might not be long before Sundara Karma are headlining the venues in which they’ll be the opening act this Spring.

Not since Circa Waves’ debut two years ago has this writer come across a single so addictive…

Youth is Only Ever Fun in Retrospect opens with last year’s single ‘A Young Understanding’, which makes for a blistering start. Similarities to The Vaccines could be noted on account of the track’s guitar-led indie punch, but the execution here is more intelligent and effective than The Vaccines manage most of the time. Written from the point of view of a teenage girl, the song is a fitting introduction to the LP’s titular theme, and plays host to the first of a number of lyrical gems present on the album; “You pray they’re just boys, they’re not villains”, Oscar sings with sympathy, before adding the sarcastic remark, “One’s got religious tattoos, he’ll be forgiven”. A subtle atmosphere underpins the track, amid accusations that the last generation “left their hearts in the 70s”, and warnings against such nostalgia.

Fellow single ‘Loveblood’ follows seamlessly, and though it could initially be misinterpreted as fairly standard indie filler, repeated listens unveil the track’s charm. An easy choice for a single, and the band’s live set closer, the song shows Sundara Karma at their most Peace-esque, and almost their most infectious. That honour, however, is reserved for ‘She Said’, possibly the catchiest song you’ll hear this year. The track’s narrative depicts the events of a certain night out, and does so from both the girl’s perspective and the boy’s. Lyrically, it features impressively creative descriptions of the protagonists; “It started off with her hair, ‘cause every night has gotta start somewhere / Another badly combed frown, ‘cause mirrors always seem to bring her down”, with Oscar later observing that the male counterpart would “cut his heart out to be cool, ‘cause everybody loves a criminal”. The chorus is likely to stay in your head for days, so there is your advisory warning, attached to the recommendation that you introduce yourself to the band via this single. Not since Circa Waves’ debut two years ago has this writer come across a single so addictive, so it’s fitting that Circa Waves will also be joining Sundara Karma as support for Two Door Cinema Club this year.

Elsewhere on the record, the group mediate their driven indie sound with both acoustic moments and more electronic ones. The former are most notable on ‘Lose The Feeling’, a breezy, yet subtly stern track that The Coral would love to claim as their own – and ‘Happy Family’, which serves as the album’s emotional centrepiece. A two-minute long acoustic introduction lulls the listener before the rest of the band kick in and soon drop into one of the LP’s finest choruses, singing of the anxiety of leaving home. There’s also the slight presence of some political commentary, which is scattered throughout the record, but not overdone. It’s rare that a song spanning six minutes feels too short, but that argument could be made here. Meanwhile, the electronic inclusions appear on the likes of ‘Flame’ and ‘Watching From Great Heights’. Some critics have lauded the former as the album’s highlight, and while I would personally suggest that it never truly ignites and lives up to its title, it definitely offers a fresh orientation in terms of its groove. Likewise, ‘Watching From Great Heights’ feels like a narrowly missed opportunity, as its structure is rather safe and foreseeable, but despite this, the song contains a considerable charm and a commendable chorus melody.

…there is more than enough intelligence on display here to suggest that the band’s future will be entirely worth following.

The kind of minor faults mentioned above can also be picked up on in ‘Vivienne’, which plays out somewhat predictably, and provides a few generic lyrics. However, it is still a strong cut overall, and with its vast ambience and arena-sized chorus – which will appeal to most lovers of alternative music in this vein – it will undoubtedly have been an easy choice for a single. It also gives listeners the whimsical line “I never knew that fate could be so tongue in cheek”. Finally, the last single to be counted, ‘Olympia’, is a fine example of the band’s honed sound, and the consistency of this sound throughout the record. Mentions of autocratic Marquis in Paris prelude another strong chorus, in what is a fan favourite track that will surely remain a staple of the group’s repertoire in the years to come.

So, despite the occasional lapse into a few generic genre moments, there is more than enough intelligence on display here to suggest that the band’s future will be entirely worth following. Whilst some reviewers’ comparisons to Arcade Fire seem slightly misplaced and premature at this moment in time, it wouldn’t be overly surprising to hear Sundara Karma tackling those kinds of layered, intricate songs down the road. For Sundara Karma, youth may only ever be fun in retrospect, but this album of theirs suggests that they have plenty to look forward to.

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