The dreaded sophomore slump. It’s a hurdle that any nascent act must overcome in order to solidify its precarious standings with the skeptics (us critics) and lay the foundation for sonic expansion to come. Essentially what you’re asking is, ‘How high is this glass ceiling?’ For some it was either unexpectedly lofty (Kings of Leon’s Aha Shake Heartbreak) or hopelessly sinking (Son Volt’s Straightaways).
Garnering comparisons to Portishead and Tricky from the get-go, The Big Pink came in under the radar and swiped serious accolades in 2009, including NME’s Phillip Hall Radar Award for best new act. Nearly three years later we finally get a taste of what’s next from Robbie Furze and Milo Cordell (son of legendary ‘60s rock producer Denny Cordell) and it sounds like they’re stuck in neutral behind the very formidable Mack truck they thrust in motion with their masterful debut.
Production is certainly not a concern here. In-demand indie arbiter Paul Epworth (Florence & The Machine, Foster the People) mans the boards with considerable moxie. But when Cordell praises Epworth’s ability to push them “to the next level”, I’m having an awfully hard time hearing it. “Stay Gold” is a perfectly palatable pop song. Sure it has the signature level of guitar reverb and synthed up grime to resonate with their fans; but lacks any clever chord change or arpeggio to transcend the growing fray of bass-driven pseudo-dubstep pop standards. Simply put, it’s a radio song for not-so-radio times.
Bowie and notable avant-garde savants would be delighted they decided to sample Laurie Anderson’s 1981 minimalist hit “O Superman” in “Hit the Ground”. Once again the clarity and mixing of Furze’s spaced-out vocals with Anderson’s syncopated tones is downright majestic. But once we hit the break-beat bridge filled with innocuous lyrics like “Can you catch me where I drop?” or “Is this ever gonna stop?” (a question I posed internally too many times during this juncture) you have to feel damn near exhausted with the booming sound beams leading right back to the same tired melody.
One exception to the merry malaise teeming throughout is the refreshingly whimsical “The Palace (So Cool)”. Instead of being bombarded with the usual blare, we hear an increasingly textured combination of percussion and woodwind that begins to elevate and carry Furze’s pipes to heights we heard on A Brief History of Love. The tempo ever-so-slightly builds until the organ overpowers and launches us into a driving chorus that grows bigger with every single ethereal note.
The last half of the album is what our British readers might call “bloody rubbish” or just plain “mardy as hell.” The penultimate title track shows some promise of clarity but is still stymied by not knowing which cybernetic direction to head toward. Ask the Justice lads what to do with arena-rock whammy reverb (see “Newlands”), you either ride that wave to rock gods or descend to the depths of Ozzy, not the muddy waters of forced purgatory.
Rumors swirled about that this sophomore effort would be a “hip-hop record”, a statement they later retracted. They even claim Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as a major influence during their studio sessions. But in the end, what we have is a decent pop record that recycles their trademark sound instead of pushing it toward strange and distant frontiers.
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