The first time I heard the haunting vocal tones of Wild Beasts’ Hayden Thorpe was on their signature tune Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants, from their formidable debut album Limbo, Panto. His demented, distinctive performance on that song filled me with so much joy that I was a passenger as his sensational singing skills reeled me in. It’s a slow start, but worth sticking with if you've never heard the band before. Thorpe plays with tempo and rhythm in the second verse, the words "# race me, race me, race me #" rolling repeatedly off his tongue with the precision of the Speaking Clock. Then, he completely loses it in style in the middle eight, scatting through the words unintelligibly, yet with a level of grace that prevents the track from becoming a farce.
The Fun Powder Plot, the intense opening number on Two Dancers, sets the tone for the album within seconds. The track exhibits Thorpe's amazing range from start to finish, its muted guitar and woodblock backing providing the perfect bedfellow for his lamenting alto early on. When his voice scoops its lowest depths on the words "courage and conviction", it's a bit of a shock to the system - and the ease with which he hops between high and low notes both on record and live is captivating.
Please, Sir is a sincere lament on a theme of school exclusion (and an honourable mention has to go to Thorpe’s bandmate Tom Fleming, whose bass clef rumblings complement Hayden’s chilling falsetto perfectly). It’s easy for a falsetto to go painfully wrong, but Thorpe's range and the warmth to his voice convey the subject's desperate pleas perfectly – even down to the words "# take these chips with cheese #". I’ll make a public apology if anyone else ever sings those five little words with comparable beauty.
Underbelly is the aural equivalent of gathering round a roaring fire to be told a ghost story. It has a kind of sinister, operatic quality that marks much of the band’s second album Two Dancers. Thorpe launches straight into the story from the outset, playing with rhythm and holding the closing word "start" for as long as his lungs will allow. And that's just the bit that you don't hear on the Santander television ads (although, to be fair, lyrics about lotharios and sluts probably aren't the kind of branding the company desires for its banking services).
Then, of course, there's The Devil's Crayon, probably Wild Beasts' most instantly recognisable song. Of course, Tom Fleming takes the lead with his assured baritone on this, but it's Thorpe's higher register that lends the song its distinctive, madcap edge, taking it away from safety, boredom and comfort and towards sheer musical brilliance.
In short, if a voice is going to make a long-term impression on you, it needs to strike you right at your heart. And Hayden Thorpe, whatever he's singing, does that every time. I'd better start bracing myself for the next album about... now.
words: Kate Goodacre
Wild Beasts release their third album Smother on May 9th, 2011 through Domino Records. The band will play the following UK shows: Old Town Hall, Gateshead (May 5), Oran Mor, Glasgow (6), Coronation Hall, Ulverston (7), Brudenell Social Club, Leeds (8 - afternoon and evening, evening sold out), Y Theatre, Leicester (9), Wilton's Music Hall (11/12, both sold out), Guildhall, Gloucester (13), City Hall Grand Ballroom, Sheffield (14). They also play Isle of Wight Festival (June 11) Field Day, London (August 6) and End of the Road, Dorset (September 2).