Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Getting Together

The Long Blondes – Couples (Rough Trade, 2008)

The consensus already seems to be that this Erol Alkan-produced follow up to the poptastic ‘Someone To Drive You Home’ represents a great leap forward for the otherwise conventional Long Blondes. My own feelings on the record are somewhat more ambiguous. The much vaunted synth pop angle breaks through on only maybe half the tracks and the album is a good deal less transparently melodic than its predecessor. Whereas Kate Jackson’s voice was frequently a bold bellow on the debut, it’s often breathy and faux-seductive here. Whilst there’s much more variety in tone and effect, the end result sometimes seems a little contrived.

Perhaps the most transparent influence is Blondie, and much of ‘Couples’ seems to be striving to revive the sound of ‘Parallel Lines’. It’s therefore more of a honing and finessing of the Long Blondes’ musical preoccupations, rather than some sort of sonic revolution. This is of course not entirely a bad thing, but anyone approaching this expecting true audacity might be better off looking elsewhere. Also, the removal of some of the group’s rough edges in favour of something more sassy and sophisticated has also blunted their appeal for this listener. Much of the enjoyment I surprised myself in finding in their debut came from its hasty urgency.

The album opens superbly, with the genuinely ambitious ‘Century’, a lengthy track propelled by a slinky backbeat and enervating synth and vocal stabs. It’s relentless and enveloping, but also fascinating in its gradual progression and unfolding ideas. ‘Guilt’ is perhaps the best of the tracks to update and hone the band’s trademark sound, this time with more emphasis on Nile Rogers-esque scratchy guitar than on distortion or angular attack.

Elsewhere though, the forays into new directions are more tentative. Some reviews have highlighted ‘Round The Hairpin’ as a highlight but it’s remarkably cold and robotic and completely devoid of melody. I can’t help but feel that this is the sort of material better left to the likes of Ladytron or Stereolab and that The Long Blondes don’t feel quite at home in this retro-futurist world. The neo-pop warmth of St Etienne might be a more apposite reference point, should they continue to follow this particular lead.

Having said that, ‘Too Clever By Far’ is much better – with Jackson adopting Perhaps that’s because it’s closer to Prince than Kraftwerk. The delayed entry of more Nile Rogers-styled guitar playing is particularly effective. Perhaps best of all is ‘Nostalgia’, at which Jackson’s voice is somehow both expressive and controlled. The greater emphasis on melody set against reverb-laden piano recalls some of the highlights of 1980s pop – like a streamlined version of ABC’s ‘All Of My Heart’. The brilliant ‘I’m Going To Hell’ (perhaps the most straightforwardly exciting track here) represents something of a careful synthesis of old and new.

What Alkan appears to have brought to the group is a tightening of the sound, particularly a more processed and rigourous drum sound emulating the work of DFA for the likes of The Rapture. He also seems to have encouraged the band to pay more attention to structure and arranging – and a number of the songs take some unpredictable twists and turns as a result. In spite of this, songs like ‘The Couples’ and ‘Erin O’ Connor’ are not as far from the sound of their debut as some writers have suggested.

Whilst many have highlighted this album as a response to the rise and fall of two inter-band relationships, I can’t help feeling that the lyrics here are less assured than the pithy observations that littered the debut, easily the equal of the more highly lauded Alex Turner. It’s also not as if they haven’t covered this ground before either .The debut featured numerous dissections of relationships, both conventional and unconventional.

There’s also plenty of narcissism and detachment in their approach to relationships, although, it must be conceded, nowhere near as misanthropic and ugly as that featured on the recent Teenagers album. Take, for example, the fear of commitment in ‘Here Comes The Serious Bit’ – ‘I can be a shoulder to cry on/I can be a body to lie on/But don’t ask me for more than that.’ When coupled with the somewhat one-sided perspective on relationships that dominates the rest of the record, it comes to look a little negative. The protagonists of these songs are wary of investing too much emotion in their relationships, and all seem to be striving to protect themselves from the inevitable fallout.

Lines like ‘Falling in love is sometimes hard/writing a love song is even harder/better off leaving that to somebody else’ are not particularly profound or appealing. That the song in question (‘The Couples’) moves on to quite a cogent analysis of feeling left out in a world of coupledom, and a direct admission of loneliness (‘people have the nerve to tell me that they’re lonely…’), merely makes the banality of those opening lines even more striking.

‘Couples’ proves that The Long Blondes are not content to stand in one place, but it perhaps hints at new directions more than it actually claims the territory. It’s occasionally brilliant but it is also missing some of the primacy and urgency of its predecessor. Similarly, the new elements the band bring to their sound are not particularly original, and tend to sound as if they are looking back more than looking forwards. But it reveals more and more with every listen – and it may well prove to have more staying power. They have treated their audience with respect and have trusted them to be open-minded – it might just be the basis of a long-lasting relationship.

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