Back at the tail end of 1980s Britain, things were getting loose. As the vise-like grip of Thatcherism tightened, the cultural reaction was antithetical: tent-sized flares, mind-altering chemicals, all-night raves, and skinny Manchester dudes with bowl cuts were all in vogue. Baggy, as unlikely as it seems, was a kind of non-protest protest against the political ideology of the day.
In 2013, a revival is improbable—these days our clothes, tunes, and wallets are as tight as our governments' austerity programs—but try telling that to Jagwar Ma. Over the past year the Australian duo of Jono Ma and Gabriel Winterfield has been making a splash with a series of loose-fit grooves that borrow heavily from the flowered-up floors of Madchester.
Their debut album Howlin continues to burrow into the baggy aesthetic, delivering luminously lit melodies led by anagogic lyrical structures. But to dismiss the pair as pure plagiarists would be unkind; there's an educated ear to this record that runs from the acid house chow of "Four" to the ethereal dream pop gaze of "Backwards Berlin."
Of course, early singles "The Throw" and "Come Save Me" are album showstoppers, each a livewire of groove-riddled retrograde executed with a modern twist. But the aerated rush of "That Loneliness" is just as enticing, built on sparse guitar jangles and quick-stepping percussion; and slouching dreamscape "Did You Have To" is an effortless, palm-tree swaying lilt of harmonies and chiming keys.
Despite its pleasures, Howlin struggles to surpass the faint feeling of pastiche that runs through "Uncertainty" and the frankly ridiculous pop flutter "Let Her Go." In the 1980s, the cultural context allowed such flaccid sounds to thrive, but today is not the time to play it loose. Against their better nature, Jagwar Ma are going to have to learn to tighten up.
First published here for Under the Radar