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Monday, September 22, 2014

Alt-J’s second album defies expectations

Spearheaded by their hit single “Breezeblocks,” Alt-J’s debut album An Awesome Wave initially had both fans and critics raving over the uniquely 21st-century sound cultivated by the four lads from Leeds. Eager to crown them the next big thing, many compared the four to a certain other group of introverted Englishmen who have also been playing music together since their school days. Back then, they went by the name On A Friday, but most people today know them as Radiohead. Sure, lead singer Joe Newman’s penchant for falsetto recalls post-The Bends Thom Yorke and both groups are influenced by trip hop/IDM acts like DJ Shadow, Massive Attack and Aphex Twin, but so was almost every major British rock musician who was coming up in the ’90s. Newman himself has said that he feels these comparisons and expectations are premature. He is quick to dispel them by citing Alt-J’s lone musical output in comparison to others’ long and consistent careers. Yet, for whatever reason, it feels like there is a disproportionate effort being made to contextualize Alt-J in relation to other bands and speculate on their longevity. This cacophony of hypercritical prophesizing has proven itself to be entirely superfluous to the music itself, mostly unsubstantiated and ultimately detrimental to new fans approaching Alt-J.
On the first album, the band’s experiments in non-English lyricism, apparent fixation on triangles (as evidenced by their name, which is a keyboard shortcut for ∆) and subtle references to the book Where the Wild Things Are and the film Léon: The Professional all served to form a unique aesthetic identity. Barely two years removed from their debut, though, it now seems that many of Alt-J’s idiosyncrasies have become gimmicks in the eyes of critics. For the most part, this is due to hipsters’ (read: Pitchfork’s) aversion to anything popular. As the group continues to convert more and more Mumford & Sons/Ed Sheeran-type listeners, it is simultaneously losing the respect of the bloggers and critics who champion the underground and undiscovered. Such an inverse relationship between record sales and underground critical acclaim is only heightened by the fact that they were awarded the Mercury Prize for Best British Album of 2012. Perhaps it is all of this pressure and denigration that led to the supposedly amicable departure of bassist Gwil Sainsbury (for an example of such wanton abuse, see The Guardian’s January article “Alt-J: what happens when a bland band loses an anonymous member?”). Considering all that has happened and all that has been predicted to happen to the band since their debut, there is a great deal riding on this sophomore effort. With This Is All Yours, the newly slimmed-down outfit delivered a lush set of tracks that surprises without straying too far from their formula.

This Is All Yours immediately harkens back to An Awesome Wave by starting with another “Intro.” It’s a slow-burning chorale done in classic Alt-J style — only this time on a grander scale. The staccato vocals of Newman and keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton slowly multiply into a grandiose chant in which each voice cycles through acting as the kick, snare or hi-hat of a syncopated drumbeat. This slowly builds up to a “drop” executed by the actual drums (and distinctive array of woodblocks, anvils, shakers, tambourines, etc.) of percussionist Thom Green. This song sets the tone for the rest of the album — many such climactic moments are to come.

Perhaps the most recognizable remnant of the first album is “Bloodflood, Pt. II.” The song takes lyrics from tracks such as “Fitzpleasure” and “Bloodflood” from their first album and lays them in a more fuller bed of horns and piano. New lyrics placed between resurfacings of old characters such as the Mandela Boys — a gang from Newman’s hometown of Southampton — add an additional dimension to their evolving story. Lyrically, Newman’s fondness of short, simple sentecnes and pithy observations is on display more than ever before.

Hardly a carbon copy, there are some refreshing departures from their established blueprint. In particular, the new album incorporates some distinctive feminine voices. Much has been made of the Miley Cyrus sample on “Hunger of the Pine,” which was released alongside the Black Keys-esque “Left Hand Free” a couple months before the album dropped in its entirety. After a few minutes of ambient build-up, the sampled line “I’m a female rebel” kicks in, sounding like it was taken directly out of James Blake’s repertoire. The most memorable female voice, however, occurs on the track “Warm Foothills,” perhaps the album’s crowning achievement. The track features English female folk singers Lianne La Havas and Marika Hackman, as well as Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst. Rather than giving each their own verse or chorus, the guests trade off every other word with Newman and Unger-Hamilton, creating a mesmerizing hocketing effect that recalls fellow indie rockers Dirty Projectors. It will be very interesting to see how they attempt to recreate this effect in a live setting.

“The Gospel of John Hurt” provides another high point. Midway through the elegiac sparsity, the straight 4/4 backbeat seamlessly morphs into a triplet-based 6/8 feel. Moments like this are sure to please the casual music fan as well as the discerning listener. The tracks “Arrival in Nara” and “Pusher,” however, will just as surely become fodder for critics to cite as evidence of the band’s blandness. They seem to have half of the formula: lush harmonies and dramatic swells, but no emphatic entrance of drums or bass. Both prove ultimately disappointing. Still, even when they disappoint, they do it in an interesting way. “Arrival in Nara” experiments with string arrangements, robot voices, bird sounds and a left-to-right panning fly buzz that will have those listening on headphones searching around the room for the source.

As an epilogue, the record has  a secret track: an astonishing cover of Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day.” Alt-J take Robert Glasper’s vocoder-infused interpretation further into the electronic realm; the original tune is almost unrecognizable beneath the wall of synths and bass — that is, until the triumphant chorus hits like a ton of bricks.

It’s hard to believe that a band like this could be considered bland, or that there would ever be an overabundance of “folk-step” bands, that is the state of the music industry today. It does make some sense, though. It seems like almost all pop music today falls into one of two categories: foot-stomping folk a la The Lumineers or bass-heavy dance music from DJ’s like Diplo and David Guetta. Alt-J is just one of few groups who have been placed somewhere in the middle. In light of this, This Is All Yours feels like an appropriate title. It is a recognition that they only have power over the music. After they put it out into the world, they can’t control others’ projections, extrapolations or comparisons. They’re not trying to be the new Gomez, the new James Blake or the new Radiohead. And this newfound autonomy comes through in the puzzlingly polarizing group’s impressive sophomore effort.