The Crimea

TrackAlbum
Lottery Winners On AcidTragedy Rocks
Girl Just DiedTragedy Rocks
Don't Close Your Eyes On MeSecrets Of The Witching Hour
Light BrigadeSecrets Of The Witching Hour
Several Thousand Years
Of Talking Nonsense
Secrets Of The Witching Hour
Requiem AeternamSecrets Of The Witching Hour
How To Make You LaughSquare Moon
Beehive MindSquare Moon
Mid Air CollisionsSquare Moon
We Stand AloneSquare Moon

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The Crimea photo

The Crimea (l to r): Joe Udwin (bass), Davey MacManus (vocals, guitar), Andrew Stafford (keyboards), Owen Hopkin (drums)

 

Contributor: Joel Dear

The story of The Crimea begins sometime in the early noughties, shortly after the implosion of a band from Aberystwyth called The Crocketts. With two well-received albums and several big support slots under their belt, The Crocketts looked like they were going places until their label, V2, abruptly gave them the chop in 2001. They limped on for a little while longer, even managing to weather the departure of bassist Richard Carter; however, when their lead guitarist followed suit in May 2002, the two remaining Crocketts – frontman Davey MacManus and drummer Owen Hopkin – decided that it was time to disappear for a little while and (to quote – ugh – Bono) ‘dream it all up again’.

A little while later, Hopkin and MacManus re-emerged with some new bandmates and a new mission statement. “If The Crocketts were four cavemen banging stones together,” they proclaimed, “then this is the sound of four Tchaikovskys banging Kylie Minogue.”

The Crimea had arrived. Gone was the confrontational, adolescent-sounding indie/emo/punk in which The Crocketts had specialised; The Crimea’s songs (notably championed by the late John Peel) were glossy and grown-up by comparison. Their new sound was paradoxically both a great deal poppier and a great deal more complex than their old sound, and while those two Crocketts albums – We May Be Skinny & Wirey and The Great Brain Robbery – remain well a worth a listen, it was here that things started to get really interesting, and more powerfully affecting.

A lot of things happened from that point onward. The Crimea signed with Warner. The Crimea were dropped by Warner. The Crimea self-released their second album as a free download several months before Radiohead changed the face of the music industry by doing basically the same thing. The Crimea toured with Modest Mouse and lent their music to a chewing gum advert. The Crimea went out on a high by releasing an astounding double album and playing one final show in London that I’ll never forgive myself for missing.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Here’s a closer look at that top ten …

 

Lottery Winners On Acid (Tragedy Rocks)

It’s a Saturday afternoon in the summer of 2006, a week or so before my 15th birthday. My friends and I are in town for Cardiff’s Big Weekend, an annual event that sees the City Hall’s lawn – usually peopled exclusively by underage drinkers in My Chemical Romance hoodies – utilised as an outdoor concert venue, and the surrounding area transformed into a huge funfair. The rest of the gang has wandered off to check out the rides, but I’m in front of the main stage watching a band called Cord play good-not-great indie music. “Too much synth” is the criticism I will later jot down in my gig diary (in retrospect, I’m amazed I had any friends at all back in 2006).

Cord vacate the stage, and I’m about to go and find the others when I’m accosted by two guys in matching T-shirts. “Are you staying to watch The Crimea?” they ask, and I – in no particular hurry to swap my allowance for a go on a crap rollercoaster – make one of the best decisions of my life:

“Well, I wasn’t planning to … are they any good? Yeah? Go on then.”

Now that I’m retelling this story, I realise that those two men in Crimea tees who exhorted me to listen to The Crimea may well have been doing so for money rather than out of sheer enthusiasm for the music. I’d like to think that my persuaders were genuine fans and not street-teamers, but either way, I’m very thankful for the tip they gave me that day – without it, I might never have discovered one of my all-time favourite bands. The Crimea delivered a phenomenal set that afternoon, the crowning moment of which was Lottery Winners On Acid, a sweet love song that shows off its bruises with pride:

If she gets a black eye, I want a black eye,
If she gets a splinter, I want a splinter too.
If she gets arrested, I want arrested,
If she goes trippin’, I go falling over.
We walk through the streets like lottery winners on acid,
Everything she say, I was thinking anyway

If you’ve ever been a teenager, you’ll understand that those lyrics sounded like the most romantic thing in the world to my 14-year-old self. He hadn’t ever been in a relationship, but he had already cycled through any number of high school crushes (each of which felt like an earth-shattering big deal at the time) and he identified on a near-religious level with that “if she gets a black eye, I want a black eye” stuff. The stupid prick.

That being said, Lottery Winners On Acid still sounds great now that I’m a grown-up, and since it was this track that lodged itself in my head and gently nagged at me until I went to Fopp and bought the Tragedy Rocks CD, I suppose it also served as my gateway into the band’s broader output. That’s why it’s at the top of this list – perhaps it can be your gateway too.

 

Girl Just Died (Tragedy Rocks)

One of the most remarkable things about Tragedy Rocks (the debut album whose disappointing sales sealed Warner’s decision to give The Crimea the boot) is the way it fuses sweet, sensitive, romantic stuff with pain and misery and even violence. For example, the doe-eyed euphoria of Lottery Winners On Acid is ever-so-slightly diluted by the hint that something darker may be going on in the song’s slightly jarring middle eight:

If your mama could see you now, what would she think of her boy?
What would she think of her boy?

However, this mingling of the saccharine with the sinister goes both ways, and if Lottery Winners On Acid is a happy song with a dark underbelly, then Girl Just Died is the exact opposite. At first listen, its chorus – “If you wanna see my happy side/Better tell me that my girl just died” – suggests a relationship gone so wrong that Davey MacManus is now actively willing his partner to drop dead. Which is pretty nasty. But much like Lottery Winners On Acid, this song’s meaning is potentially called into question by a curveball before the last chorus:

If you wanna see the beast in me,
Keep on talking, and eventually,
If you wanna see my happy side,
Better tell me that she’s got nine lives

Davey’s voice is noticeably softer during this section, and the lines quoted above are backed only by twinkly music box sounds, which contrast starkly with the squall either side. For one brief, gorgeous moment, we see behind the black humour and glimpse that – aw! – he really does care about her after all.

Well, maybe. Either way, this is a fantastic song, and surprisingly bouncy given that it’s about somebody dying. But then I guess that’s the joke, a musical extension of the singer’s dark sarcasm.

 

Don’t Close Your Eyes On Me (Secrets Of The Witching Hour)

The central track from The Crimea’s second album opens with a dreamlike, distant-sounding piano figure; it’s a serene, sumptuous little moment that’s rudely interrupted by the sudden arrival of the song itself, like a peaceful sleep cut short by the alarm clock on your bedside table. Welcome back to the real world, loser. Didja sleep well?

Don’t Close Your Eyes On Me is all about dreams, reality, and the yawning chasm that separates the two. Life, this song reminds us, is a game of limbo; the bar keeps getting lower, and our expectations are forced to do the same. “You can dream,” warns Davey MacManus, “but you can’t have everything.” My idiot teenage self thought this song was kind of romantic, but it really, really isn’t: even if you ignore the rather creepy line that precedes the second chorus (“Heaven’s just got you, naked on all fours”), the song’s overall message is very clearly not wedding day material. In a nutshell: fantasise all you want, but you’ll probably have to settle for someone like me in the end.

That’s a pretty depressing thought, even by The Crimea’s standards. They did wretched, gut-busting anguish better than any other band I’ve ever heard, but this comparatively muted number is a different sort of sad: it’s wistful, resigned, and uncharacteristically sober, and yet these attributes somehow combine to make Don’t Close Your Eyes On Me sound even more devastating than the hopeless, howling misery of, say, Opposite Ends (from Tragedy Rocks).

 

Light Brigade (Secrets Of The Witching Hour)

While The Crimea’s music was often depressing, it was never outright defeatist. Their songs dealt with all manner of heartbreak and horror, but seldom did they suggest that the solution was simply to give up. Did they give up when their record label showed them the door? No way – they recorded another album, released it as free download (an unprecedented move at the time), and continued on their way having made hella headlines in the process.

Light Brigade is the eighth track on Secrets Of The Witching Hour, the amazing album that The Crimea very generously gave away for free, and it’s the perfect sonic representation of that never-say-die attitude. The asskicking brass-‘n’-strings arrangement makes for a rollicking, rousing listen; the track is less than three minutes long, and yet it packs enough firepower to reinvigorate even the most hopeless individual. I can scarcely remember how many times that epic-sounding interlude has lifted my spirits.

If you ever feel like giving up the fight, Light Brigade will pump that feeling out of your system and leave you ready to take on the world once more. It’s the ultimate here-comes-the-cavalry song, and an excellent antidote to the wailing and gnashing of teeth heard elsewhere in The Crimea’s discography.

 

Several Thousand Years Of Talking Nonsense (Secrets Of The Witching Hour)

Secrets Of The Witching Hour is my favourite Crimea album. Any of its eleven tracks could justifiably have been included in this top ten – it’s astoundingly strong and astoundingly consistent, and I still can’t quite believe that it was given away for nothing.

(As it happens, I actually paid full price for my copy of Witching Hour. I first came across the album whilst flicking through the racks at Spillers, and I – blissfully unaware of the record’s unorthodox online release – snapped it up for £10 without a second thought. Mind you, that decision worked out pretty well for me: my MP3 player had recently popped its clogs, see, and I was consequently forced to spend the summer of 2007 listening to music on a woefully clunky portable CD player. Downloading Witching Hour for free would have saved me a tenner, but purchasing the physical version enabled me to listen to the album for a solid week and fall madly in love with it over the course of a family holiday in Newcastle.)

Selecting my favourite Crimea song is more challenging, but Several Thousand Years Of Talking Nonsense is a very strong contender. Secrets Of The Witching Hour always sounded to me like a loose concept album about the end of the world, and if that is the case, then Several Thousand Years is the point at which humanity accepts its doom and decides that any remaining time should be spent atoning for all the bad stuff we’ve done up to this point.

When all is said and done, we are not worthy,
Of this world we do our damnedest to destroy,
But it’s not over,
There is still time to repent
For several thousand years of talking nonsense

This is backed by a crashing great skyscraper of a guitar riff, which positively explodes out of the stoic bassline that leads the first half of the song. The whole track is spectacularly well-put-together, and it’s one of the band’s more positive numbers, too – a significant chunk of it is dedicated to Davey MacManus simply counting his blessings:

For endless possibility,
For food inside my belly,
For hands that do as I say,
For the beached whale that sings beneath my Atlantic duvet,
For never giving up,
For something approaching happiness,
For Ben & Jerry’s ice cream,
For the one woman in a thousand
Who’s got a thing about guys with missing front teeth,
I thank my lucky stars

 

Requiem Aeternam (Secrets Of The Witching Hour)

When you’re used to hearing someone sing about sadness and tragedy and alienation and fear and loathing and blood and guts and hopelessness, it’s a really beautiful thing to hear that same person sing, with music swelling joyfully around them, that:

Happiness is possible

Such is the heartwarming pleasure of listening to Requiem Aeternam, the penultimate track from Witching Hour (and that album’s final representative in this list, promise). This song isn’t all sunshine and sparkles – there’s a line about “falling onto helicopter blades” in there somewhere – but it eventually reveals itself to be a rather beautiful ode to the power of love and the pursuit of happiness:

Just keep rolling the snowball up the hill …
Your ship will come in,
Just keep on stumbling

Who’d have thought that a band who named their first album Tragedy Rocks would be capable of such a heartwarming sentiment?

 

How To Make You Laugh (Square Moon)

A little while after the Witching Hour hubbub had died down, some new songs materialised on The Crimea’s MySpace page (remember MySpace?). Among them was How To Make You Laugh, which I instantly loved – the verses, led by a warbling synthesiser and Davey’s lyrics about missed chances, are great, and the chorus is even better:

I am a psychologist to the psychologists,
I am the silver moon, friend of the stars,
I am not the chosen one
I only do miracles when I’m drunk
I’m not the world’s funniest clown
But I know how to make you laugh

Every time Davey hollers “I am a psychologist”, the song kicks to life like a game of Buckaroo, and what initially seemed like quite a laid-back, sunny tune suddenly sounds a lot more urgent and, um, toothy.

How To Make You Laugh was among the songs that The Crimea played when they came back to Cardiff on the 2nd of July, 2008. It was an intimate, candlelit affair; the gig took place in a small café in Roath, and the band played far more softly than the band I had seen at the Big Weekend a couple of years prior. Think acoustic guitars instead of electric guitars, and brushes instead of drumsticks.

Requiem Aeternam and Lottery Winners On Acid both featured on the setlist that night, as did Loop A Loop (another track from Witching Hour – this is the one from that chewing gum ad I mentioned earlier). Other than that, it was all new material: the show primarily functioned as a sort of preview for the band’s third album, which was still gestating at the time under the working title Listen To Seashells, They Know Everything.

That summer night in Cardiff was my second sighting of The Crimea in the flesh, and sadly it would prove to be my last. Sadlier still, I couldn’t even hear them properly; a few days prior to the gig in Roath, I had made the mistake of going for a swim, and after a few too many goes on the big blue whirlpool slide, I emerged from the pool with a near-deafening volume of water stuck in my ears. Everything sounded kinda muffled for a week or so afterwards, and tragically enough, that evening with The Crimea fell smack-dab in the middle of that week or so.

It was still magical, though. I got a cool red T-shirt with a pterodactyl on it; I got one of the band’s setlists after they had vacated the stage; and, best of all, I got a sneak preview of Listen To Seashells, which I decided there and then was going to be my favourite album of 2009.

What a fool I was.

 

Beehive Mind (Square Moon)

In September 2011 – more than three years after How To Make You Laugh and its pals waded through my waterlogged ear canals in that café in Roath – an announcement appeared on The Crimea’s official website. The key points were thus:

1. The band’s third album was finally ready, and was slated for a Halloween release on Monday the 31st of October, 2011.

2. Instead of Listen To Seashells, They Know Everything, the album’s title would be Square Moon.

3. Square Moon would be a double album comprising 22 new tracks, including How To Make You Laugh and most of the other songs they had previewed back in ’08.

4. The vinyl version of Square Moon was available to pre-order then and there, and anyone who did so would immediately receive a free download of Beehive Mind, one of the aforementioned 22 new tracks.

I’m not much of a vinyl fan, but after three years of waiting and wondering, the temptation of a brand new Crimea recording was too much to resist. I ordered the record, stumped up the cash, and downloaded Beehive Mind with relish.

My relish was not misplaced. As soon as I listened to that free teaser track, I knew beyond doubt that my band – the band who had blown me away at the Big Weekend, the band whose music had kept my heart in my mouth for the duration of that week in Newcastle, the band whose tattered setlist was still tucked away safely in a box at my parents’ house – were alive and well, and that their third album would absolutely meet the expectations that I had been patiently harbouring since the summer of 2008.

Beehive Mind is an utter gem of a song. It’s another of the band’s more positive moments (perhaps the purest love song they ever wrote) and from the opening piano figure to the blissed-out chorus to the joyous, this-could-go-on-forever-and-I-wouldn’t-care coda, it’s every inch a winner. It was the perfect advert for its parent album, but more importantly, it was and is a wonderful, ever-so-slightly skewiff pop song that’s still making me smile even as I type this.

 

Mid Air Collisions (Square Moon)

Fast-forward to December 2011, maybe a week before Christmas Day. Halloween was almost two months ago now, and not only did Square Moon miss its spooky release date, it actually still hasn’t been released even as 2011 coughs black phlegm into a handkerchief and decides to get its affairs in order.

And yet I’ve been listening to Square Moon for weeks now. It’s been in my ears near-constantly, soundtracking my autumn/winter the way Secrets Of The Witching Hour soundtracked my summer back in 2007. How is this possible? Well, let’s just say that my decision to pre-order the record back in September proved shrewder than I could possibly have anticipated.

Seven days before Square Moon‘s scheduled release date, the following message landed in my email inbox:

The [new album’s] official release date was originally the 31st October 2011 but we have had to put this back until Spring 2012. We want to make sure we can do a proper launch with press, reviews and gigs all synced together so it was unfortunately essential to push the campaign back until a time we could make sure we could do it.

Because you pre-ordered your album already we really wanted to thank you by still sending the full package to you now. We’d ask that you keep it under your hat as we would hate the record to appear on Pirate Bay or Limewire until at least sometime after the official release in the spring. By all means show it to your friends and family, maybe even have a good old fashioned vinyl listening party, but if you can help us keep it offline until we’re ready that would be brilliant.

Thank you so much for your support and enjoy the download for now, your record will be on its way shortly!”

In actual fact, the world at large would have to wait another year and a half before Alcopop! Records finally, heroically gave Square Moon the general release it so desperately deserved. But those of us who were smart enough to pre-order the album (plus my friend Cliffey, for whom I burned Square Moon onto a pair of blank CDs) received those 22 tracks right on time, and I for one enjoyed being one of the few people able to listen to Square Moon back in 2011/12.

Unlike the average filler-stuffed double album, Square Moon is positively crawling with highlights. This list’s #9 slot could have been occupied by any one of at least a dozen other songs from that spectacular collection, but I chose Mid Air Collisions for two very good reasons. Firstly, together with Beehive Mind and my final selection, it forms one of the greatest runs of three on any album I’ve ever heard. Secondly, it reminds me more keenly than any other track of the afternoons I spent wandering around Cathays in the final days of 2011, looking forward to Christmas and remaining completely spellbound by Square Moon a solid eight weeks after I first heard it.

Yes, Mid Air Collisions is another happy-sappy Crimea song, further proving that Davey MacManus’s fabled “happy side” not only exists but was actually, maybe, the dominant driving force behind everything he wrote. Yes, the transition between this song’s lazy-river verse and its confetti-cannon chorus could scarcely be any less fluid, not least because the former is in 3/4 and the latter is in 4/4. But try making those complaints when you’re listening to it and YOU WON’T BE ABLE TO because it’s nigh-impossible to criticise something through a big cheesy grin.

 

We Stand Alone (Square Moon)

The title of this song suggests a certain finality, which makes it an attractive candidate for my list’s tenth and last slot. But that’s not the real reason We Stand Alone is here; the real reason it’s here is its absolutely jaw-dropping middle section, one of the absolute best moments in The Crimea’s entire catalogue. Its lyrics are as follows:

And I waited outside all night in the rain,
But you never came back, so I waited again,
And I waited like a handprint,
Waited like a headstone,
Waited like a cactus,
Waited like a broken home,
Waited for the sun like a midwinter dawn,
And I saw your face on a milk carton,
And you looked real young, like you’d never hurt anyone,
I waited through the storm,
And I waited through the fire,
Waited eight miles high just to stay alive,
And I waited as the crows peck out my eyes,
And the bluebottles swarm, and their children are born,
And I wait ’til my bones bleach white in the sun,
And I waited as Santa Anna whistles through my ribcage,
Scorpions hide inside my broken elevator,
Outside all night in the rain,
‘Til my dying day, I’ll wait again
.”

For me, nothing exemplifies the power, the persistence, the romance, the tenderness, the agony, the ecstasy, and the all-around excellence of The Crimea quite as well as those 32 bars of music and the run-on lyrics that sit majestically atop them.

I’m acutely aware at this point that I’ve babbled and gushed my way past the 4,000-word mark, so with my top ten now complete, I’ll round off my story by showing you an email that I sent to The Crimea in August 2012:

Hey there Crimea dudes,

Just wanted to check in and let you know that I’m still loving Square Moon, especially my beautiful double vinyl version, especially Disc 2 Side 1. I’ve been propping the sleeve up on my piano’s music stand thingy and trying to learn that middle bit of We Stand Alone, with the printed lyrics for reference.

Also wanted to ask if there were any other live dates on the horizon? My friend and I decided to forgo a trip to London in the hope that you’d be coming a bit closer to Cardiff before long. So … yes, please come to Cardiff soon! And if you do, please play any combination of Mid Air Collisions, We Stand Alone, How To Make You Laugh, Light Brigade, Don’t Close Your Eyes On Me, Several Thousand Years Of Talking Nonsense, and Girl Just Died. They’re all great songs, and I’d love to hear any of them in the flesh.

Anyhow, sorry for the slightly obsessive fanmail. Keep doing what y’all’re doing.

Much love,
Joel Dear

Sadly, they never did come back to Cardiff. The Crimea marked the official release of Square Moon with a farewell gig at Camden’s Jazz Café in 2013, but I was not among the audience that night (the fact that it was a Tuesday didn’t help) and it seems like I’ll never get another chance to hear those songs live with water-free ears. Still, hoping against hope is what The Crimea were all about – after all, there was a time when I didn’t believe that the band would even release a third album – and if, like me, you’re looking for a shred of promise to cling onto, this tantalising tweet (posted by The Crimea in February 2016) may help you to keep the dream alive.

 

The Crimea official website

The Crimea on bandcamp

Davey MacManus on facebook

Drowned In Sound interview with Davey MacManus (2013)

Bill Cummings interviews Davey MacManus for God Is In The TV

The Crimea biography (iTunes)

Joel Dear lives in Cardiff and overthinks his favourite albums on a blog called The Album Wall. He also writes and performs his own songs under the name Shiny Tiger. When he’s not making or writing about music, Joel enjoys drinking rum, playing board games, and quoting The Simpsons at every available opportunity.

TopperPost #513

2 Comments

  1. Andy Worsey
    May 5, 2016

    I love this post on The Crimea, such a great band, and you’ve really captured why they appealed to me so much, thank you. I too will never forgive myself for missing their final (and yes I spotted that tweet too which made me hope…) gig, but as you say it was on a Tuesday in London after all. The lyrics in Square Moon are, in particular, so thought provoking and I listen to it now, still trying to work it all through. His writing is in itself worthy of a bigger stage, and certain tracks such as ‘Goldmine’ have become recent favourites even if they may not have been at the time the album was released. ‘Last Plane out of Saigon’ brings tears to my eyes, for some reason that I’ve never quite fathomed, whilst tracks from the 1st 2 albums always bring back amazing memories of seeing them live. Anyway lovely post, thank you, and i fully understand how you found you’d got to so many words…. !

  2. Christopher, The Crimea website
    Jun 21, 2016

    Jesus, 3 years… Anyways. One of the best reviews / articles I’ve ever seen on the band 🙂 Might even have to update the site with a link… And I’m sure you’ve already seen it, but if anyone else missed it here’s the final gig.

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