Bar Italia Tracey Denim Matador
Nina Cristante, Jezmi Tarik Fehmi and Sam Fenton’s work as Bar Italia has always felt a little loose, a little in-the-distance, sounding like it was being beamed in through a supporting wall, leaning as readily into dustbowl ambience as it does skronky agit-pop.
Described by this very publication as “London’s most exciting new band”, the trio has cultivated an air of mystique while steadfastly refusing to play the press game: no interviews, no explanations, just a pair of spare and skittery LPs and an EP on Dean Blunt’s World Music label. The band’s visual output also does little to dispel the obscurity. Their music videos are grainy and DIY, capturing the often black-clad members in seemingly mundane, everyday environments: sitting in bistro chairs at a chain coffee shop, kicking pebbles down a grey British beach, or hanging out in an idle field. The decision to keep their heads down in an age of seemingly ceaseless self-promotion has served them well: Tracey Denim, their confident and more polished third album, arrives courtesy of legendary alt-rock imprint Matador, one of the most formidable forces in alternative music.
Tracey Denim is an up-to-date interpretation of the crunchy, middling-to-heavy, plaid-shirted sound that made Matador so influential. Across 15 languorous tracks that largely follow the blooming and wilting of relationships, the group map out a vision of indiedom where 1996 and all that never happened. Theirs is a world where Sebadoh mattered more than Suede; where Thinking Fellers Local Union 282 headlined Knebworth; and where Britpop burned out long before the bucket hat became ubiquitous in our gig venues and high streets.
Woozy opener Guard is a dreamy number redolent of Electrelane’s most hushed moments, underpinned by a softly insistent stab of piano that punctuates spindly guitar lines. That listlessness drifts across most of the record. But here, the production is glossier than Bar Italia fans are used to, and the melodies certainly ring clearer, with tracks like the galloping NOCDand Changer hinting at a more cathartic, big-room sound, all layered harmonies, funkier bass lines and crisp drums.
Tracey Denim’s weariness works in Bar Italia’s favour, conjuring up an atmosphere of overcast late afternoons of the soul where all you’ve got for company are your records and memories of what once was and could have been. “Creep into my bed/ Some dark nights get into my head,” admits Fenton on the introspective, moody single Punkt, offering one of the album’s most direct glimpses into the people behind the music. In the final third of the track, Cristante pleadingly and plainly responds: “I may owe you an explanation/ I just wanna lose control/ And I don’t have a real solution.”
My Kiss Era, Horsey Girl Rider and Missus Morality drag their feet over wiry guitars, plodding drums and smeary vocals, invoking the spirit of your most stoned friend. But the pace does, however, pick up on lead single Nurse! A fuzzy, effervescent 90s pop ballad of sorts, delivered by a blissed-out sounding Fenton, the song encapsulates a theme that runs rife throughout Tracey Denim: the tension of feeling caught between the past and present. “A mask covered your eyes/ And you move like crazy to your favourite song/ You said, “I’m coming alive”/ Haven’t felt this way since you were 21,” goes Nurse!’s melodic hook before a torrent of overdriven guitars wash over, as if to sully the memory.
The group saves the best for last with Maddington, a song you might easily mistake as an offcut from Reading, Writing and Arithmetic by the Sundays. Fenton and Cristante share vocal duties, mumbling over a pitch-perfect assemblage of jangly chords and coyly syrupy strings. When Cristante softly sings “so I close my eyes and try to breathe, to try to leave you behind me” it feels like peering briefly into a better, brighter world.
One could argue that there’s no need in 2023 for an album that seems content to retrofit itself into the record collection of the archetypal mid-90s slacker with immaculate ease. Yet, there’s something oddly energising about having our own sense of living through a moment of cultural malaise reflected back at us: you’ve heard this all before, dozens, hundreds of times maybe, but you’ll likely be coming back for more.