Contender by FightmilkRelease date: May 14, 2021
Label: Reckless Yes
Oh, these feisty little urchins, don’t you just want to pinch their adorable cheeks? Even as they pick your empty pockets and swagger off laughing behind your back? My feelings about Fightmilk were conflicted and so I dithered over writing up their ‘coulda-woulda-shoulda’ second album Contender. Now the news is out, all over town, everyone’s waving flags and yelling from rooftops about its unstoppable pop charms and who knows what all else. My hearty handshake and cheerful “well done, there” now seems superfluous to requirements. It makes me feel like being the tinfoil hat loon wheeled out to provide ‘balance’ in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus.
So, here’s why I hate Fightmilk. I can sum it up for you in one word and that word is ‘Sleeper’. Disturbingly successful 90’s Britpop also-rans they hover in the background like an unwelcome guest and refuse to leave. I attempted an exorcism by checking out some old Sleeper videos online. I hold Fightmilk responsible for this indignity. It only partially worked. The passing years have not helped and Sleeper are still shit. On the other hand I was forced to briefly confront the misery of being Louise Wener and trying to front an indie pop band during the height of all that moronic lad-rock/Loaded unpleasantness. As if La Wener needs or wants my pity.
It’s not quite that straightforward, but then what ever is? Fightmilk set up their lemonade stand on the abandoned industrial estate of post Britpop indie rock, an area so spattered and besmirched by the sloppy and half arsed efforts of the congenitally dull that when someone labelled it ‘landfill indie’ the entire nation, including most of the people involved, shrugged and sighed “yeh, that’s about right.” They’ve picked themselves an uphill battle. As my Nan used to say “I wouldn’t start from here, dear.” Thing is, Fightmilk are some sort of temporal anomaly, or an exception that proves the rule. They have wit, and tunes, a way with words and considerably more than just the one musical idea. Which frankly puts them streets ahead at this point.
Contender finds the band “getting louder, quieter, stupider and more serious” a statement it’s hard to dispute. Their instincts towards pop, rage, flippancy and honesty all pulling and stretching their sound a little further. Once again the songs are mostly about broken and unrequited young love. Been dumped? Fightmilk have got you. Failure, self doubt and projection abound but Contender is also full to the brim with soaring choruses and an absolute sackload of power pop hooks to wash that bitter medicine down.
It’s over a year since ‘I’m Starting To Think You Don’t Even Want To Go To Space’ showed them growing and refining their sound (if not actually escaping gravity’s pull). Second single ‘If You Had A Sister’ shows off their expansive, more grown-up side to even greater effect. It starts as a woozy ballad with an underwater melody line they might have pinched off The Cure and gradually winds up to quite a roar. Then, for reasons we’re all tremendously bored of now, it took a long time for this album to get here.
The two recent singles ‘Hey Annabelle!’ and ‘Overbite’ are both charged with a fizzing Saturday morning pop energy. ‘Hey Annabelle!’ bitches and spits and kicks and deflects and still squeezes a bubbling keyboard solo, handclaps and la-la-la’s in under two and a half minutes. ‘Overbite’ blends Grange Hill schoolyard infatuation with Pixies’ ‘On Graveyard Hill’ and some wholesome affirmation. Both display the keener arrangements and wider sonic palette of the album. As so often with Fightmilk, there’s more here than meets the eye.
It’s a mark of just how good Contender is that my favourite songs keep changing but aren’t even among that hot streak of singles. ‘Maybe’ is the one I really overlooked, coming late in the running it’s less brash, more mysterious, and has a simmering drama about it. A cousin to ‘Solving Crimes In Sweden’ off their first album, it could well just be about watching telly but it has a subtly grand sweep and another great vocal from Lily Rae who, in a world where ‘adequate’ is the norm, can actually really sing but, in a double blessing, is never a show-off twat about it.
The first thing we hear from her is “I’ve fucked it” on intro ‘(contender)’. One of three interludes that stem from the central drama of ‘Cool Cool Girl’ the album’s pivotal song. It starts in raging pop punk mode, an acidic portrait of a scene queen. It’s fun, if a little bitchy, but the song breaks and turns over to a litany of self regard “I’m a poet, I’m a DJ, I’m an artist, I’m amazing…” On the second pass the twist that undercuts it is peak Fightmilk, smart and funny but also open and fierce. Lily’s voice rising to a scream as she yells “‘cos I’m not like other girls” is a moment of raw brilliance that gets me every time. In a record full of self defensive feints it’s a knockout blow.
Fightmilk still hover over the fetid ditch of landfill indie but they’re blessed with a corvid’s eye for all that glitters and might be salvaged from it. Assembling it into bright pop free of the lumpen mire. Confidence is a preference of the cocksure and empty, Fightmilk return indie pop to its home among the mis-shapes. Underdog cheerleaders. Quickly you realise barbs like “These days you just make sad songs in your room” from ‘Starting To Think…’ might be self-directed too. Fightmilk’s weird and potent cocktail is here both more distilled than before and more varied. There’s not a bad track on it. I could go on (the strings! The nod to McClusky!) but let’s just say I’ve now played Contender so very many times that it’s starting to annoy me again. Sometimes I wonder why they aren’t better or more popular but the truth is they’re probably better than anyone realises, me, you, even the band themselves. The raucous chorus of approval for this album is great to see, but I think they can still do better.