Sundara Karma are one of the latest English indie rock bands to have seen success on the charts. Their debut, Youth is only Ever Fun in Retrospect, out on RCA Records, clearly managed to emerge above other indie and alternative rock albums, peaking at number 24 on the British album charts and making Sundara Karma suddenly surface as a relevant band in the British indie scene. However, like many up-and-coming indie rock bands, they have been met with mixed reactions from critics. I often feel that this is somewhat of an inevitability for a seemingly run-of-the-mill English indie rock band, as the youthful attractiveness that may make one band seem appealing individually is shared by many a similar band, often leaving many indie bands in a sort of purgatory without any definitive musical identity. Unfortunately, despite the indications of some talent and good ideas on this debut record from the Berkshire-based band, they certainly fit into the category of another new alternative artist who largely lack any distinguishable or peculiar qualities that make them stand out amongst the multitude of bands of the same vein. Whilst this may be true, that does not mean that this debut from the quartet lacks memorable moments or discernible merits.
One of the more positive qualities I found of this record was the impassioned and sometimes powerful vocal delivery from frontman Oscar Pollack, which makes a case for itself from the very first track, A Young Understanding. Pollack’s rousing vocal delivery is easily the highlight of the track, and his vocal melody over the chorus is both memorable and well-performed, even as he reaches up into the higher octaves of his vocal range. The opener is also one of the more memorable tracks instrumentally, particularly as a result of the glistening guitar lead that opens the record forcefully, with the drums having a distinctive punch to them that undeniably caught my attention at first. Whilst the rest of the track follows very conventional rules, with a predictable structure and a simple drum pattern accompanied by a slightly fuzzy bass playing root notes over the verses, it’s nonetheless a rather entertaining track for the time that it’s on thanks to Pollack’s performance, and I can certainly see this song going down a treat at a live show.
Nonetheless, the conventionality of Sundara Karma’s sound is evident on much of this record. The second track, Loveblood, for instance, features staple jangly indie rock guitars accompanied by a straight and simple drum pattern that feels like it’s not really going anywhere, and the simple keyboard melody that joins the mix after the first chorus does little to add any new colours to the track. Once again, Pollack’s vocals are the most interesting feature of this track, but even still, they feel more restrained by the simpler melody than on the previous cut.
Certain tracks, however, do stand out for reasons other than just Pollack’s vocals. Happy Family, one of the most ambitious tracks on the record due to its six-minute runtime making it the longest cut on the record, opens with some lovely ambience before a bright and tuneful acoustic guitar melody comes in. The layered and reverbed vocal lines fit perfectly on top of the guitar and this whole first section has somewhat of a Mumford & Sons tinge that is nonetheless grounded in an indie aesthetic. As the guitar paused at around the two-minute mark, I was expecting the rest of the band to come in and the song to take a more standard indie rock approach for the remaining four minutes, but I was thankfully mistaken. The guitar starts again, but this time is joined by a straight bass drum beat paired with a fantastic fuzzy bass that draws the direction of the track away from a more folky vibe and towards something more like Sundara Karma’s own sound. The drums continue to pick up, with some added rimshots and snare beats, whilst the radiant vocals continue to sound great. Gradually, the song starts to take shape as a more standard indie rock tune, and it does feel rather overblown in its length, but is nonetheless a highlight in the tracklisting. Unfortunately, this brings me to a broader issue with the album, that being its length. Despite only being 12-tracks long, Youth is Only Ever Fun in Retrospect clocks in at nearly 50 minutes, and when there are some songs that pale in comparison to the stronger tracks on the record, I can’t help but feel perhaps one or two cuts could have been omitted as to make for a generally stronger 40-minute record.
Ultimately, whilst Youth is Only Ever Fun in Retrospect is a relatively satisfying listen for the time that it’s on and displays some particularly good ideas at certain points, I can’t see this record making much of an impact, nor do I see it being listened to much in a year’s time without some further developments for Sundara Karma. It may prove to be a perfectly enjoyable release for the average indie rock fan, but even still, I don’t imagine this record standing out much when weighed against its competition, of which there is an abundance. Nevertheless, it’s better moments may make it appealing enough for some.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6/10