ALBUM REVIEW: China Bears – Participation Trophy

5.0 rating
China Bears – Participation Trophy

Patience is a virtue. This saying holds true for the delicate and delightful work of China Bears. Originally formed in Somerset by twin brothers Ivan (vocals, guitar) and Frazer (lead guitar), the China Bears lineup was completed after James (bass) and Dean (drums) met at university in Guildford.

Having released three wonderful EPs, I’ve Never Met Anyone Like You, Statue Still, and All That Distance, the groundwork was finally laid, and the songs were suitably prepared and written for a debut album. Recorded in the autumnal sunshine of Leith with Rod Jones from Idlewild at the production controls at his Post Electric studios, the thirteen songs that make the album show China Bears at their most beautiful, heartfelt and heartbroken.

Though it may have only taken two weeks to get down on tape, the work that has gone into them cannot be understated. Participation Trophy opens with the gentle, grandiose “To Pull You Back” Ivan’s vocals draw you in instantly. There’s a vulnerability to his delicate tones, and the opening lines, “You’re slowly disappearing, But we’re acting like it’s not happening”, set the mood for what’s to come.

The storytelling hits instantly. There’s light beyond the shade. It feels incredibly personal, and you almost feel you shouldn’t be intruding. That’s how powerful the writing is, not just on this song but on the album as a whole. I’d compare it to the brilliance of the great, late Scott Hutchison, who was the master of writing about relationships and mental health.

“Easy Kill” could very well be a nod to the aforementioned Scott and his band Frightened Rabbit. You have the glorious sing-a-long hook, driving, dancing guitar chords and a bass that pulls everything together wonderfully, lyrically brilliant “Without one another, We’d never recover” The song shares the joy of being loved and supported and not wanting to hide those facts. It is okay to be hesitant, but ultimately, it celebrates the vulnerability of letting someone in. When someone brings out a side in you that you genuinely want to share and don’t want to hide, that’s the easy kill.

“I Will Break My Own Heart” rolls in next. As the title suggests, it is a wonderfully reflective song with a truly excellent, driving guitar riff that lifts the song soaring into the sky. It is a yearning to feel love lost and broken and truly stunning. “Beck And Call” is another delicious slice of indie-pop goodness. The harmonies are just incredible, and there’s a twinkling piano and a chord sequence that reminds me of REM in parts. I can hear the influence of Rod Jones’s production, too. There’s a real sense of strong Idlewildness. This song and all the songs on Participation Trophy deserve to be played to festival audiences in their tens of thousands.

“North Star” has already become a fan favourite; it is another beautiful song about love and relationships. It builds into a wonderful crescendo of stunning musicianship. “I always look for signs of you” is a delightful lyric, so vivid in its imagination; we all see signs of people we love in the smallest things. I adore the lyrics throughout this record, but I think “North Star” might be the top of the mountain. “I Always Wish You Were Here (With Me)” is a gentle song that sweeps you off your feet and has you swaying along; it is a lovely way to end side one.

“Total Communication Breakdown” has given the band some well-deserved plays on the radio, especially 6 Music. It is another driving, deliberate love song. The guitar patterns are reminiscent of how Rod Jones (producer) plays, free yet with great complexity and precision. “Gracie” shows the softer side of the band’s armoury. It is a nod and a thank you from Ivan to friends and loved ones who’ve propped him up when need be. I hope you can picture your own “Gracie” when you hear this song: “You are more than the pain that you bare, More than this place, And you’re gonna be ok” Magical.

“Sunday” previously appeared on an earlier EP but deserves its spot on the record. A song about the struggles of life, “Good god, it’s a Sunday afternoon, What are you doing on the kitchen floor again?” is such a strong, delicate, and harrowing line, yet it is delivered beautifully.

The record closes just as it begins, with a gentle, piano-led ballad that shares the same name as the album title. It brings us full circle, taking us on a wonderful journey of songs about loss, fear, love, doubt, and depression. It is honest and earnest yet remains full of hope and beauty.

And as the final words play out, as the piano slows to a halt, the words “I’m not scared of trying…..anymore” close Participation Trophy perfectly. As far as debut albums go, this record is perfection. I hope it becomes China Bears’ very own Definitely Maybe, their Parachutes, their Silent Alarm. It deserves all the love in the world.


Xsnoize Author
Stuart Evans 28 Articles
North London born but now living in Norfolk; I have a true passion for music. Favourite artists would have to include Manchester Orchestra, Idlewild, Gang Of Youths, Phoebe Bridgers, Sharon Van Etten and Just Mustard. I enjoy a craft beer and support Tottenham Hotspur for my sins.

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