How much can you take out of a band and still have a band? Nottingham’s Sleaford Mods are down to voice and laptop, each with its own punchline. The laptop plays drumbeats and basslines programmed by Andrew Fearn, who adds a guitar and keyboard, intermittently, as if more than two instruments costs extra. And though the digital realm allows for endless manipulation, Fearn rarely adds anything extreme, even distortion. So there’s your joke — his computer acts like an old-fashioned live band, loud and charging, but no more modern than a toaster.
Singer Jason Williamson can’t give up physical functions, since he needs to do all the shouty bits, so he gives up form. Most wordplay is off the table. When he wants to talk about aging, he doesn’t sub in dying flames. On “I Can Tell,” from the duo’s new EP, TCR, he says, “I could be 25 years older, shuffling into paper slippers to catch the 42 to hell.” You get old, you get the bus, it gets worse.
Earlier Sleaford Mods records were set in a dirtier version of northern England: Toilets were as common as people. Now the rooms are cleaner but the dread is thicker. “Britain Thirst” is austerity brought home. Over the EP’s most wired rhythm, Williamson faces down the people he’s always sung about, and doesn’t even sound angry about what they need from him. “Nick my brand-new car, scatter my dog, scar my soul. These people they don’t care, they can’t get dole.” Then the invaders break through his “French doors.” His response? “I screamed at his face and I cut him with a pen. Whatever.” His conclusion? “And the roads all lead to the bin.”
The title track is short for “Total Control Racing,” an electric slot car racing set from the late Seventies. It’s either a reliable distraction for two grown men, or a metaphor for the slots we can’t pop out of without crashing. Or both. The song tracks Williamson as he prepares to go out, and then goes out. First verse: kids and their nappies. Second verse: obnoxious bartender. Third verse: goals achieved, to no end. With nothing but enunciation and one bit of double-tracking, Williamson chants his night: “The sofa sank, I couldn’t relax, I felt cramped but luckily the table next to me got up and left and apart from the eight empty pint glasses they left on the table, I thought it was the better bet — more upright. I ain’t slouching, I’m not a Beatnik, although this pub did call for that kind of angle. I hate going out. Going out is for young people.” Williamson in grouch mode is Williamson in his happy place.
In minimal music, small changes go big. TCR is rendered in higher fidelity than previous records, or maybe something old has simply been swapped out for something new. Williamson has pulled back on the yelling, which makes the stories stick. It was fun, two years ago, mocking Sonic Youth fans (“If you like feedback so much, why don’t you get a job with the council?”) and calling every second person a twat; now Williamson is focusing on what no future feels like. You can’t blame people who are broke and have no structural support; getting old is just another way to find out there’s no system in place; the new band in town is just a bunch of “Motown wankers”; and it’s not even worth going out to the pub. As Sleaford Mods prepare to release a full-length and do their first proper tour of the U.S. in 2017, Williamson is grading everything around him harder, including the band. “The EP is good,” he emailed. “The new album is better though.”