Since coalescing around singer Nick Ainsworth in 2003, Former Bullies have been a regular presence in Greater Manchester’s pop underground, becoming spiritual godfathers to more recently emerged gems such as Kiran Leonard, Irma Vep, and Pins. Though prolific performers, the pace of their recorded output has been somewhat slower, with new release “Stranger” being just their fourth long-player in all that time.
Following the end of a decade-long relationship, Ainsworth took time to reflect and pour the experience into a set of heartbroken songs. Everything is here on the surface, open and honest, and totally at ease with all that means. But, shot through even the most lonesome of tunes is a golden ray of endearing optimism.
The band have a history of keeping things simple, with sparse arrangements of instantaneous pop tunes that spring immediately into life and scurry off over the horizon before you know what’s hit you. This approach is continued for the most part on “Stranger”, with only small dabblings in (home) studio augmentation – a healthy dose of grainy tape echo is complemented by drummer Tom Settle sparingly adding lush guitar chords to enrich plaintive verses with washes of colour.
Though none of the songs on the record even dream of getting anywhere near the 3-minute mark, with a distinct lack of middle 8s and guitar solos thin on the ground, it often feels like Ainsworth’s voice isn’t going to make it to the end, his toil almost in stark opposition to the slack, easy jangle of the instrumentation. The resultant tension gives “Stranger” a vibrant, pop immediacy, with a cracked but beating heart at the centre, that harks back to the likes of Skip Spence, Michael Yonkers, Jonathan Richman, and early R.E.M. whilst also bringing to mind contemporaries such as Ultimate Painting, Woods, and White Fence.
Former Bullies are Nick Ainsworth (guitar, vocals), Matthew Taylor (bass guitar), and Tom Settle (drums, guitar, vocals). Since 2003, as well as releasing three long-players, they have played with Daniel Johnston, Cass McCombs, Giant Sand, Jeffrey Lewis, The Pastels, Calvin Johnson, and have toured Europe with The Lemonheads.