In Brief: It won’t win awards for artistic innovation, but this is a solid retro-pop album that manages to be more consistently enjoyable than anything else I’ve heard in 2012 thus far.
The Temper Trap is one of those bands where I can tell that they might not stand out to a lot of people, but for me they seem to hit the sweet spot once I give their music two or three listens to start sinking in. Shoot, the first time I heard the band, it apparently didn’t even register. The Australian group’s breakout single, “Sweet Disposition”, was featured in the movie (500) Days of Summer, which I saw and loved, but it wasn’t until the song cropped up on a mix CD a friend made for me in 2011 (which also led me to the discovery of fellow Aussie band Empire of the Sun) that I really took notice of it. Now I’m not sure how I could have possibly missed it. It’s a delightfully danceable little love song with U2-esque guitar delay and striking falsetto vocals, most definitely the band’s signature song. I tracked down their debut album’s Conditions based on the strength of that song, and found it to be a bit of a mixed bag – a few fluffy love songs here (the aforementioned single, “Love Lost”, “Rest”), a few weighty social/political commentary songs there (“Resurrection” and “Science of Fear”), a fun follow-up single I couldn’t even begin to interpret (“Fader”), a fun instrumental (“Drum Song”), and a few ballads that didn’t really do it for me (most of the rest of it). It was an airy, enjoyable indie rock disc from a band that seemed comfortable being itself and not taking their decidedly retro sound into intentionally campy territory (unlike, say, Empire of the Sun). But at times the group’s songwriting skills were lacking, or their mellower songs left a bit too much dead air for my liking. So I expected they’d probably continue to deliver decent albums, but not amazing ones.
So I was a bit surprised at how solid this year’s followup album, simply titled The Temper Trap, turned out to be. It’s not a major shift to their style, though it does seem to reboot their career a bit by streamlining their already nostalgic sound with stadium-sized synths on the louder songs and moodier electronic auras on the quiet ones, shoring up a lot of the weaknesses that held Conditions back in the process.. That whole 80s mood that their debut had going on hits even harder here, and I consider that a good thing because they’ve actually got more of a focused sound this time around. The rhythms and melodies seem stronger as a whole, the songs flow more logically from track to track while drifting seamlessly from rockers to ballads and back, and they somehow manage to strike a strong emotional chord throughout most of it without getting all bombastic like many retro bands would be tempted to do. Indonesian-born lead singer Dougy Mandagi has a certain amount of soul in his high-pitched croon that lends an air of intimacy to most of the band’s work, so this is probably the sort of thing that’s a better fit for the sensitive guy than the art rock snob or the headbanger. While he sometimes turns his eye to more weighty, global affairs or even waxes existential, for the most part this is a very relational album. I think that’s a good thing. Some bands only get political, or only sing about the big grand meaning of it all over and over again, or only sing of love and heartache. The thematic versatility helps to hold my interest until the very last note of the album.
The Temper Trap isn’t the kind of LP that aims to break down musical barriers or make some sort of grand statement – it’s just an incredibly solid melodic rock album. And maybe 2012 being a slow year for good music in general is partly to blame for this, but I was quite surprised to finish evaluating this disc and realize, it’s the best album I’ve heard so far this year. I could list more ambitious or genre-busting or well-written albums that I’ve really enjoyed in 2012, but I keep coming back to this one simply because it’s the most solid. That may sound like really vague praise, but what can I say, sometimes a band wins me over simply by being really good at what they do instead of trying to be all things to all people.
1. Need Your Love
The album opens with, if not its strongest songs, definitely one of its catchiest, and probably also one of the best to use an an introduction to the band’s refurbished sound. Synths dominate from the first second, jumping out at you like blaring red lights, And Dougy’s voice seems to hit all the right cadences. It’s not quite a throwback to New Wave – despite the overtly poppy approach, the drums are surprisingly cautious here, never quite bringing the song to a full-on boil despite their being adequate space for a guitar break and a big buildup to the final chorus. That sort of hints at the more minimal approach that The Temper Trap will take on some of this album’s quieter songs – you can see this one as splitting the difference between their aggressive side and their sensitive side. Lyrically, it’s a fairly typical love ballad, with an overly simplistic chorus, but some interesting verse lyrics about a relationship born out of wanderlust, one which pulls a hapless man into wandering on the open road just to get another taste even though he knows he’s selling his soul in the process. This is the sort of melancholy approach the band often uses, and it seems a bit goofy, yet it has a certain nostalgic charm going for it as well.
2. London’s Burning
Time to get a bit socially conscious. Reminding me very much of early U2 with its post-punk rhythm and sharp stabs of guitar, this little ditty attempts to make sense of a chaotic scene of rioting and looting in the band’s more recently adopted hometown of London. The Temper Trap chooses to not take sides by attacking the subject somewhat vaguely, noting the chaos and criminality of the act but also noting the economic realities driving people to such extremes. Really, the clips from a news show heard in the beginning and middle of the song probably say more than the actual lyrics, since a reporter is interviewing a guy who’s just given himself the old five-finger discount on a plasma TV and who feels justified in how he’s sticking it to the man. Whether you think this is an unbiased look at a complex issue or just an anvilicious way of preaching from an assumed moral high ground will probably depend on where you stand on the whole 1% vs. 99% culture war that’s been going on lately. I choose to stay out of it and just look at this as a fun little energetic song that gives the band a chance to blow off some steam. Dougy’s falsetto, normally not the kind of thing that would fit into more of a sharp-edged song like this, is actually used to great effect, coming across as more of a taunt than anything: “And it doesn’t matter how hard we try… everything is nothing, there’s no future in sight.” The gang shouts of “Heeeeeeeyyyyyyy, burning, burning!” are a nice counterpoint to this, though for some strange reason I like to purposefully mis-hear this as, “Heeeeeeeyyyyyyy, Irving Berlin!”, because it’s not enunciated all that well.
3. Trembling Hands
The album’s follow-up single to “Need Your Love”, while a bit of an odd choice, is actually my favorite track. I say it’s an odd choice because it’s got sort of a tumbling rhythm to it, sort of an intentionally “loose” 6/8 where a more obvious hit would go for a tight 4/4. Dougy’s vocals wrap rather fluidly around it, too, and the melody has this odd, meandering quality to it which I find really seductive for picking colors from the pallete that aren’t as common to pop hits (modern or nostalgic). The way his voice absolutely soars in the main hook is probably what helps to clinch it and make it radio-friendly. But let’s be honest, it’s not one of their more sing-along ready choruses. It almost could have been a ballad buried in the back half of the album in some other universe, until they shined it to a polish with echoing piano, shimmering guitar work, layered background vocals, and some of the best drumming on the album. The rhythm and texture of it remind me of “Acrobat”, one of the lesser-known tracks from U2’s Achtung Baby which also happens to be one of my personal favorites. (Maybe it’s the trapeze artist in the music video that made me think of “Acrobat”? Hard to say.) This one’s not quite as edgy as that, but it’s definitely got a sense of loss and mourning to it, and a nervous and lonely man gradually grows frustrates with trying to plead his case with someone (A lover? A friend? A politician in a powerful position?) who just won’t listen to him regarding the crumbling state of the world around him. Despite all the production tricks going on, I think it’s one of the band’s most soulful songs, and I think it’s malleable enough to work equally well in an “unplugged” environment where they could give it more of a bluesy feel if they wanted to. This arrangement suits me just fine, though.
4. The Sea Is Calling
The stretch from tracks 3 through 6 is, to me, the strongest segment of the album, even though it shoves a lot of the band’s mellower songs right upfront. When they’re this beautifully textured, with the drums gently but firmly bumping along and the guitars cascading down like gentle waterfalls, I don’t mind the band backing off on the “rock factor”. This is another one of those songs with a snaky melody and an incredibly open-ended premise to it, as Dougy wistfully meditates on the quiet majesty of the ocean at night and starts asking the big questions about where we all came from and where we’re all going. I can’t really say what this is all about, but starting your chorus with a line like “Tucked in the corner of Earth, naked in light we are birthed” is certainly a good way to build up intrigue. There’s mention of “one who is great, who by words cannot be seen”, which gives the song a sort of spiritual mystique, but then of course the notion that we all came out of the ocean and it’s calling us back to it puts a very different perspective on things, so I’m sort of fascinated by this apparent inner war between science and legend that seems to be going on here. Given that the band has a habit of loading their verses down with imagery but then not relying on much more than a few simple repeating lines worth of a chorus to sustain us for the last half of the song, whatever they’re trying to explain or ponder is mostly bereft of specific details. Clearly this band’s OK with asking more questions than they answer.
The inner turmoil between open-hearted faith and the need for empirical proof continues in this soft, sweet ballad, which strips a danceable beat to its bare bones, using its quiet thump to provide momentum but intentionally holding off on the sonic payoff until the end. Dougy and whoever else is on background vocals here (he could just be multi-tracked) do their best Bee Gees impression, without the song completely falling into the trap of being a kitschy genre exercise – it’s a little bit too sensitive to be that blatant about it. But when the guitars start to support the rhythmic pattern provided by the bass drum, and then the starry synthesizers finally kick in at the final chorus, it’s hard to deny the sheer sense of joy and gratitude emanating from this song. It’s an unabashedly mushy little love song, focusing on a special someone who inspires faith in a man who has a tendency toward skepticism: “I may not always believe, but you’re nothing short of a miracle.” Just the fact that this person exists, that this combinations of molecules and cells and brain waves could inspire feelings of sympathy and attraction and fascination, somehow gets him over that chasm that it takes a leap of faith to cross. I know that feeling well, so this one’s an instant winner in my book.
6. This Isn’t Happiness
Things finally get aggressive again as a very strong drum beat kicks in at the end of “Miracle”, at virtually the same tempo but far more likely to get you moving. Lyrically, this is one of the group’s most minimal offerings, but it’s also one of their most tragically cynical. Whatever atmosphere of trust and faith was built up by the last few songs is deconstructed in the midst of an existential crisis where a man finds himself surrounded yet alone. I wish it gave more details than that, but it’s a solid enough performance – not as jagged and edgy as a song like “London’s Burning”, but definitely still working the rhythmic syncopation, retro-style moody guitars, and androgynous backing vocals for all they’re worth. Really solid minor key melody here, too. It’s one heck of a downer, but it’s a danceable downer.
7. Where Do We Go From Here
The buzzing synths at the beginning of this one aren’t too far away from video game noises. They’ve fully committed to the robotic retro-pop sound on this one, at least until the live drums and guitars kick in during the chorus. I like the contrast between the bouncy verse melody and the slow, drawn-out notes of the chorus. The lyrics seem to express some sort of healing taking place, perhaps a man getting over the pain caused by an old flame, only to rediscover her at a time when it’s not exactly convenient to start reminiscing about what could have been. if you’re not a fan of repetitive choruss, then you probably won’t appreciate Dougy singing the title of the song about a billion times, but since this one sort of gets away with having two chorus melodies for the price of one (which overlap slightly at the end), I can live with it.
8. Never Again
More aggressive synth sounds lead off the most up-tempo song in the album’s back half (it’s got roughly the same bpm’s as “London’s Burning”, though its rhythm and mood are decidedly different). It’s also one the band’s most bitter songs, as a man vows to stop troubling himself with a damsel who doesn’t want rescuing for his distress. After so many times where she’s refused to lower the drawbridge or let him scale her castle walls unhindered, he pretty much just gives up and takes his gallant efforts elsewhere, noting that “You’re walking out the way you came in.” I like it when breakup songs are defiantly upbeat like this – you get the feeling that the guy’s done being torn up over it and he’s doing his best to leave with his hands held high.
I hate to keep bringing up U2 when I feel like the band is drawing from a lot more retro influences than just them, but this mid-tempo song has one of those melodies that I swear keeps tricking me into singing the verse melody from “Pride (In the Name of Love)”. Nothing else about it reminds me of that song or that band, since here the guys are much more concerned with creating a steady stream of synthesized bass and tick-tocking percussion to float on as they ponder the simple notion that “Where our dreams go, we follow”. The song feels like it’s reaching out to a fellow traveler on that river, begging her not to travel it alone as the music hits its climax with a soaring, textured melody and another strongly layered chorus vocal. It’s not particularly deep, but it’s surprisingly sturdy, and one of the most likely things to get stuck in my head once the album’s over.
10. Rabbit Hole
For an album that’s so dependent on its soft, shimmering, synthetic textures and on sustaining a nostalgic mood throughout, suddenly switching to one man and an acoustic guitar feels a bit out of character. This feels like an alternate arrangement of something that might have been far more ambient and layered as the band originally imagined it, at least for the first half of the song before it adopts more of a typical electric guitar-based arrangement.. Some people will find it to be a nice change of pace, I’m sure, since it shifts the focus to what is arguably one of Dougy’s stronger lyrics, as he warns people of a truth they don’t want to hear – some sort of an imminent flood or other form of widespread destruction than they’ve apparently brought upon themselves. Subject-wise, this would pair well with Gotye‘s “Eyes Wide Open”. But as songs that initiate a slow burn while warning of some form of imminent doom go, I vastly prefer the previous album’s “Resurrection”, which was more imaginative in how it built to its climax. Here the guitar work is mostly pedestrian – and I’m not saying it’s stunningly inventive on the rest of the album, necessarily. I just feel like what should be a surprise comes across as rather dull and by-the-book.
11. I’m Gonna Wait
Here the album hits a strong emotional climax with a song that starts out exactly like any number of slow-dance songs from the 80s probably did, with its inexorably slow drum march and its delay-heavy guitar effects. The melody has an air of finality to it, like you’d something you’d play over a slow motion scene in which two starcrossed lovers with big perms are tragically separated. Dougy is haunted by a lost lover’s ghost throughout this song, and there’s a sad beauty to its simple angst, especially as the monotone hook garners extra sympathy for the poor sap who stubbornly believes she’ll come back: “I’m gonna wait, I’m gonna wait, I wanna/I’m gonna wait, I’m gonna wait, I wanna wait for you.” I could almost see The Killers coming up with something like this in one of their mellower moods, if only Brandon Flowers could keep his off-key bellowing in check. The way it segues into a sad, rainy-day guitar solo and then finds the chorus hook meeting up with an impassioned final verse from Dougy is just beautiful: “I’ll be a fool, a fool waiting for you!” My only gripe at that point is that it tapirs off so quickly after that… they should have let the climax linger for a bit longer rather than keeping this one at a safe, radio-friendly length. Still, it’s the kind of song I wish I had around to put on a mix tape for some college crush I knew I wasn’t gonna see again until the end of the summer. She’d be in shambles driving away listening to it, but then the eventual reunion would have been insanely happy… or who am I kidding, probably just incredibly awkward.
12. Leaving Heartbreak Hotel
A bit of programmed syncopation and a decidedly un-electronic piano melody bring in our last song in style – it’s a hypnotic combination of sounds that unfortunately build up to a rather anti-climactic song. Here, the scene of two lovers parting is one in which they seem to have coldly agreed that it was just for a season and it’s better to leave the place where their little tryst happened and just hang on to the good memories without dragging it out into something it was never meant to be. It’s a strangely cynical conclusion to come to – that the initial bliss of confessing your feelings to someone and getting swept up in the sordid consummation of those feelings is destined to be the highest possible point that the relationship can reach. Now all that’s left is to hang onto those fleeting magical moments, which will resurface only in the good dreams as Dougy repeats “I’m gonna catch you in my sleep”. It’s a bit of a bummer to end the album this way, but then I suppose that’s where a diet of nostalgia eventually leads you – to a place where it’s easier to hang on to old memories than it is to brave the difficult (or at least monotonous) stuff you might have to go through to find new things worth remembering in the here and now.
Despite that slight downer of an ending, and despite my occasional problems with the inherent vagueness of the band’s songwriting, I feel that The Temper Trap has carved out a fairly strong identity for itself as a band on this self-titled disc. I can see areas where they might want to flesh out their thoughts with something a little more concrete rather than relying on pure mood to sustain the listener most of the way through a song. But their ability to create a mood is arguably a lot stronger than a number of other bands trying their hand at a similarly nostalgic approach. So while it’s limited in how far they can take it and they might be wise to change things up a bit as the 80s throwback approach ceases to be a fad in the current “indie gone mainstream” scene, I still think they’ve done a really solid job of making music that aims to capture fleeting memories and put them in a time capsule for us to always remember what they felt like.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Need Your Love $1.25
London’s Burning $1.25
Trembling Hands $1.75
The Sea Is Calling $1.75
This Isn’t Happiness $1.75
Where Do We Go From Here $1
Never Again $1.25
Rabbit Hole $.50
I’m Gonna Wait $1.50
Leaving Heartbreak Hotel $.75
Dougy Mandagi: Lead vocals, guitar
Lorenzo Sillitto: Lead guitar, backing vocals
Joseph Greer: Keyboards, guitar, backing vocals
Toby Dundas: Drums
Jonathon Aherne: Bass
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Originally published on Epinions.com.