The Sonder Bombs – ‘Clothbound’

By Ian Kenworthy

The ukulele has a reputation problem. Hear the name and you can’t help but think of George Formby or the endless cascade of YouTube creators murdering your favourite songs with pinky-plonky cover versions. The Sonder Bombs are here to change that; armed with one of these four-stringers and a punk-rock attitude, their second full-length ‘Clothbound’ is just the thing to alter all your preconceptions.

The band’s 2018 album ‘Modern Female Rockstar’ sounded hugely confident, mixing upbeat pop-punk stylings, playful song structures and more than a little ukuele – and as front woman Willow Hawks’ weapon of choice, the instrument is the band’s foundation and a key part of their sound. If you haven’t encountered The Sonder Bombs yet, imagine Phoebe Bridgers with a backing band and a sense of humour and you won’t be far away; their jaunty music and story-telling approach to lyrics also lends itself to appeal to fans of DIY punks like Martha.

‘Clothbound’ takes their established sound and pushes it into a quieter and more introspective place – you can still feel the punky vibe, but for the most part it’s a slower, almost forlorn album. To be clear, this isn’t a shift in style – while ‘Brink’ feels a lot like their earlier work, for the most part they shy away from the anthemic and embrace a richer, calmer sound. The upbeat edge isn’t entirely missing though, as heard on ‘K.’ and ‘Play It By Fear’, both also doused with a dark brand of humour that proves the band haven’t lost their sense of fun.

As for the ukulele, it underscores every song here and brings a lively edge to ‘Swing On Sight’ and ‘Brink’. While on their earlier recordings it was front and centre, here the instrument is blended in, giving the music a certain texture and soul that can’t be understated.

In the past, Hawks has described their music as blunt and sarcastic, but while you can certainly read the lyrics that way, it’s a description that belies just how affecting they are. This applies despite the playful edge, even when she is skirting difficult topics and it’s great to hear lyrical flourishes, as when she throws down stingers like “What are friends for? Not to treat like shit” and “I’d love to see your heart flatline”. Notably, Hawks has toned down her language for this release and although she can’t resist dropping the odd F-bomb here and there, it marks a maturing of her songwriting. While she has always been talented, with these ten songs it feels like she is really pushing herself. Most notably, ‘Scattered’ is the most beautiful song in the band’s catalogue and is the place where the Phoebe Bridgers comparisons can be most keenly felt.

As if to prove their commitment to the album’s overall atmosphere, Hawks’ voice sits a little lower in the mix than on their prior releases.  This forces you to dig a little deeper to really get a feel for what she is saying and gives ‘Brink’ and ‘The One About You’ a more intimate feel. There is a delicacy to her singing on ‘Papillon’ which is spine-tingling, even when paired with the upbeat music and at times her voice is as soft as a whisper, and by using a clean guitar tone and drumming with brushes the band enhance the mood.  Hawks also curls her voice around phrases to give them just a little more impact, especially on ‘What Are Friends For?’, which has the strongest lyrics and the biggest hooks.

A real current of sadness flows through the album which contrasts nicely with many of its themes, most prominent on the slowest songs like ‘Scattered’, although it can also be felt on ‘Crying is Cool’ which uses ‘Oooo’ backing vocals to subtly shape the song’s aura. Even the song titled ‘VEGAS BABYYY!!!’ with its upbeat synthy solo and complimenting male vocal is laced with an underlying sense of loss. It makes for a striking and quite affecting album that really works its way under your skin.

‘Clothbound’ is a delight. Broader and more delicate than The Sonder Bombs’ previous work, it is threaded with emotion and makes for a powerful album. The ukulele has rarely been in safer hands.

IAN KENWORTHY

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