There’s something refreshingly organic about the career path Scottish quartet The Vegan Leather chose for themselves in the lead-up to the release of their album, extolling the virtues of patience and hard work while never being especially concerned about fitting in anywhere. The world of music moves too fast these days for a lot of bands, and in the five year interim between the release of their debut single and their first full-length, plenty have succumbed to the pressures of the industry and gone on hiatus or disbanded altogether. That The Vegan Leather sound fully-formed on Poor Girls / Broken Boys is no accident, having been afforded enough time to develop their sound rather than cobble something together.
The Paisley-based band originally formed as a trio consisting of Gianluca Bernacchi, Matt McGoldrick and Duncan Carswell, and released ‘Days Go By’ as their opening salvo back in 2014 under this lineup, but the track crucially featured guest vocals from Marie Collins, welcomed into the fold shortly thereafter as she took up co-vocalist duties with Bernacchi. On the album, their voices sometimes sound in harmony; elsewhere the contrast between them is employed to great effect, like on ‘Unorthodox’, where the pair trade verses before dovetailing for the song’s insistent chorus.
The time spent honing their craft is evident in the lush arrangements and nagging hooks of these 11 songs, with ‘French Exit’ opening the album at a high dramatic pitch, its lyrics pitting social anxiety against the thrill of a night out while subversively set to music that’s primed for the dancefloor. The four-piece’s willingness to experiment gives the record a sense of unpredictability that pulls listeners along for the ride as the off-kilter ‘The Knife’ twists and turns through its verses, building a sense of anticipation before shooting skyward for a bubblegum pop chorus that’ll get stuck in your head as easily as McGoldrick’s buoyant bassline.
That sort of fearless approach to making music is one of the album’s key strengths, with its creators shifting their focus on every song but making sure each gets the care it deserves. They’re as comfortable throwing a moshpit-ready riff into the climax of ‘The Hit’ as they are with the angular, propulsive ‘Heavy-Handed’. That both those songs were released as singles should give you a hint as to the scope of the record’s sound – it may have taken them a while to figure themselves out, but not feeling tied down by genre or classification has led to artistic freedom, and they’re revelling in it. They describe themselves as ‘art-pop’, but if anything, they’re painting with broad strokes.
At the same time, they’ve proven themselves capable of understanding what works and what doesn’t, meaning that there are a bunch of singles released since then that didn’t make the cut. ‘Days Go By’ itself, meanwhile, has been given more than just a fresh coat of paint; almost completely reworked, the album version cleaves closer to their pop instincts and slots in more readily on the record as a result. Long established as a fan favourite, its update should go down a storm, along with the euphoric ‘Holy Ghost’. Arguably the purest pop song on the record, its instantly memorable hook and evocative lyrics show off their wide-ranging sound at its most immediate.
The album closes with the last-gasp urgency of ‘Zeitgeist’, a song that reminds listeners to carry on through life’s ups and downs, in spite of what the world might throw at them. “Don’t let the zeitgeist get you down” is sage advice at the end of a record made by four people who have been blazing their own trail to even get to this point. An inventive and thrilling listen from start to finish, Poor Girls / Broken Boys delivers on past promise while showing that The Vegan Leather can pull off just about anything they put their minds to because on this evidence, they’re simply interested in sounding like themselves.