In Brief: A delightful debut from an oddball band. I look forward to many years of not being able to type the delta symbol.
“What do you mean, it wasn’t made on drugs?”
I can see a lot of people asking this question about the music of Alt-J. After all, the British indie rock band has cited such things as the lead singer’s dad’s guitar playing, drugs, and Snoop Dogg as inspirations for their early output. Folks like me who are in the “drugs are bad” camp can be quick to jump on a statement like that and assume that it means the music was actually made while high – and to be fair, that did give us some of The Beatles‘ most interesting material. But to the members of Alt-J (a band whose name is technically supposed to be written as the Greek letter delta (∆), which for the layperson is really just a triangle, and pronounced as the keyboard function to produce this symbol on a Mac, but seriously, who’s gonna type that every time?), there’s a clear distinction between what gets inspired by drug use in your free time and what goes on when you have to actually write a song or get together in the studio in some organized fashion to record it. Their debut album, An Awesome Wave, was reportedly made while sober. And it certainly has its bizarre moments where someone not used to the obscure delights of experimental indie rock might be led to assume it’s the drugs talking, but really that’s just Alt-J’s aesthetic. Lead singer Joe Newman, while he might slur his words in a way that comes closer to sounding like a drawl than anything I’d expect to hear from a Brit, has a knack for stringing words together just for the tongue-twisting, alliterative fun of it, not unlike A. C. Newman of The New Pornographers, or Andrew Bird. And when you get down to it, this band can turn out some tight performances, filled to the brim with irresistible rhythmic grooves, tons of deep bass, stellar vocal harmonies, and a dash of keyboard or synth ambiance just to add color to what otherwise might be a rather tuneless acoustic approximation of electronic music. Some of these aspects of their music are likely to remind you of modern-day Radiohead. And one would only accuse Radiohead of making their music on drugs if one wasn’t really familiar with the band. So it’s only fair to be similarly charitable towards Alt-J.
However it was made, I must say that An Awesome Wave is one of the most addictive (er, bad choice of words) debut albums I’ve run across within the last year or so. While a great number of its songs delight in taking a percussion-heavy groove, breaking it down into its most minimal elements over the course of a song while softer elements like the vocals or a mellow guitar melody take over, and then building it back up again for a delightful finish, that doesn’t take away from the “pop” aspect of their sound. Catchiness abounds throughout most of it – and it’s hard for a band to be both catchy and experimental at the same time unless they really know what they’re doing. Listening to this album is some of the most fun I’ve ever had while not making sense of anything. A few longer tracks with more exotic instrumentation and some interludes tossed in as mere fragments of ideas that apparently never developed into full songs do add to the overall “artsiness” of it, but I never find their unique approach to be pretentious or off-putting. What’s easily apparent through all of it – even in the rare moments where a lyric could be construed as angsty or navel-gazing – is that the band was high on having fun. And fun should never have to be a controlled substance.
If there’s one caveat to Alt-J’s music, it’s probably that the vocals will be an acquired taste for a lot of people. Joe Newman is quite a distinctive frontman in that sense – others have compared his vocal style to Les Claypool of Primus, but I tend to come up short while looking for comparisons that I’m actually familiar with, until I expand beyond the realm of “serious music” and start thinking about comedic musicians. Nothing they’ve written is intended to be funny, as far as I can tell, but there are a few unintentional moments where the dude reminds me of Adam Sandler, singing God knows what gibberish in that intentionally obnoxious, high-pitched tone that he would adopt when making up some sort of childish song on the spot on Saturday Night Live. For the most part, I just roll with the goofiness. But there are times when I wish this band had a rotation of vocalists to trade off lead roles. A few tracks indicate that multiple members can sing, due to their emphasis on multiple vocal parts weaving together. So I know that the potential is there. Not utilizing it as well as it could be is really a minor criticism as far as I’m concerned, but it does present the likelihood that Alt-J will appeal to a “niche” much more so than the mainstream, despite how easily a lot of heavily-buzzed indie bands can break into the mainstream on a moment’s notice nowadays. I wouldn’t mind being wrong about this.
You wouldn’t expect much from a mere intro track, but this one proves itself more versatile than many full-length songs, starting off with calm, muted piano chords, but soon bringing in the thick stew of metallic percussion that we will come to know and love Alt-J for throughout the course of this album. Our first exposure to Newman’s voice gives us a bizarre impression, as his regular singing voice is paired with a menacing, pitch-shifted version, emphasizing the surreal nature of his alliterative lyrics: “Stickle brick, tickle quick, laugh at the beautiful/It’s just a nod to the canon/Hustle over hot muscle shower, twitch off the beautiful/It’s just a nod to the canon now.” This short poem lasts for about a minute, with an instrumental rhythmic breakdown supporting brief piano and guitar solos in the second half… and just when this seems to be leading into something, they switch gears completely.
2. Interlude 1 (Ripe & Ruin)
These interludes are given symbols rather than titles on the album’s official track listing, so I’m getting the name here from an unofficial source. Though just barely over a minute long, this brief piece impresses by stripping away everything but the vocals of Joe Newman and keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton, the two harmonizing in a gorgeous acapella waltz that sounds like it could have been sung as a madrigal centuries ago. The tongue-twisting lyrics briefly describe a girl who is rather OCD about counting her steps, their perfect division into symmetric groups of nine leading us into a song that is all about the square root of nine… apparently.
This song was my introduction to Alt-J, and it would be an ideal one for any newcomer to start off with, due to how well it demonstrates each piece of the band in action – there are loud, foreboding, and occasionally off-key piano chords, a clickety-clacking percussion rhythm that is as menacing as it is seductive, Gwil Sainsbury‘s fluid bass line lurking throughout, and finger-picked electric guitar that adds an air of improvisation to an otherwise mechanical-sounding song. It’s also got more of a straightforward verse/chorus dynamic than some of the stranger songs on the album, so there’s a bit more of a hook to come back to here, especially when the music drops out as Joe croons “‘Til morning comes… oooooohhhhhh, let’s tessellate.” You might not notice it due to how innocuously his words slide right on by, but the lyrics to this one are actually mildly troubling, describing himself and someone he loves being broken into small chunks, to be devoured by sharks and seals. The group gets away with this imagery because they’re so darn surreal and mathematical – his noted love of triangles helps me to imagine that this isn’t about death or dismemberment, but rather about a person as a puzzle, being disassembled and reassembled into a completely different design, like I loved to do with tangrams when I was a kid.
Such diverse instruments as a toy piano and glass bottles help to create the percussive backdrop for a curious oddity that’s just catchy enough to work as a single – this band has a rather inventive percussionist in Thom Green. (No, not that Tom Green.) If “Tessellate” made me picture triangles, then this one makes me think of squares, owing to the title and to the loud refrain of “Lalalala!” that accompanies four sharp hits on seemingly every instrument they’ve got. The first half of the song is a bit of a slow build occasionally relying on that hook, with a suitably playful melody, only for the second half to suddenly get much more sense, with buzzing bass and claustrophobic percussion accompanying a layered vocal breakdown, which is easily the most memorable aspect of the song. “Please don’t go, please don’t go/I love you so, I love you so/Please break my heart”, the guys plead, almost in a round-like fashion, before Joe goes and turns it from caring to creepy by adding the phrase “Please don’t go, I’ll eat you whole”. The song also contains a few references to the book Where the Wild Things Are, and it may or may not be written from the perspective of a kidnapper, depending on your interpretation of the disquieting lyrics.
5. Interlude 2 (Guitar)
A light, airy melody is picked on an acoustic guitar, as vague sounds of people passing by on the street are heard in the background, as if we’re getting a brief glimpse into a busker’s daily life. This actually reminds me of Mae‘s instrumental track “Falling into You” and how it was foreshadowed in an earlier track on the EP it came from, though this never develops into a complete statement, nor does it lead directly into or out of the tracks surrounding it. I’ve heard them use it as a smoother transition between other songs live, so I’m not sure what the logic was in placing it here.
6. Something Good
Another of the album’s cornerstone tracks is up next, and yet again it’s a fine showcase for the band’s talent as individual players and their cohesiveness as a full unit. Though it starts with a snare drum pattern that sounds almost militant, the pace of this one is actually quite relaxed, easily leading to head-nodding once the song settles into its chorus rhythm. Another minimalistic, yet quick-fingered, guitar part dribbles little bits of melody around a juicy bass line, and there’s an absolutely gorgeous cascading piano riff that comes pouring in to bridge the verse and the chorus. The lyrics here contain a few strange references to bullfighting that I don’t quite understand, but mostly they seem to be about just lighting up, taking it easy for an evening, and forgetting about someone who did you wrong. It’s impossible to ignore the words “Get high” and the pivotal part they play as that delicious chorus comes sneaking in – but then I think about how the entire song is addressed to a “matador”, and how this could be more of a taunt than a piece of advice: “Hit the floor before you go, matador/Estocada, you’re my blood sport.”
7. Dissolve Me
This song is notable for introducing one of the album’s most addicting rhythms, pairing it with a jolly little synth melody, and then snatching both of them away from you for the sake of a surprisingly subdued, percussion free vocal interlude. It’s the rare song that is both loud and intimate, playing these opposite moods off of one another as a man with too many voices in his head seeks the solace of a woman’s calming influence. “She makes the sound, the sound the sea makes to calm me down”, the guys croon in the song’s quieter moments, and while the song seems to become unmoored during its bridge section, as wordless vocalizing leads us ever so slowly to a climax, the calm mantra and nervous rhythm meet up beautifully at the end, in a vocal trade-off between Newman and the rest of the band which rivals that of “Breezeblocks”.
Up next are two of the album’s most lightweight songs, musically speaking. While this one doesn’t excite me as much as some of the more rhythmic tracks, it is nice to hear Alt-J operate in more of a breezy, acoustic mode, and the tone of this one almost plays as a sweet love song, albeit a quirky left-field one. There’s plenty of breathing space to allow for interplay between the bass, acoustic, and electric guitars, as once again the band proves they can make something pretty out of a thin, skeletal structure, emphasizing the harmonic qualities of their instruments in a track that could easily adapt itself to an impromptu, unplugged live performance. (Indeed, my first taste of the band involved them playing this and a few other tunes for one of NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concerts”.) Of course, the whole love song vibe will get shattered as soon as you take a gander at the lyrics, which contain the very un-romantic lines: “Put the grenade pin in your hand, so you understand who’s boss/My defeat sleeps top to toe with her success.” Getting beaten down and/or blown up by a woman never sounded so charming. At the same time, the very repetitive lyrics throughout the song do kill a bit of its appeal since most of it takes the lines “This is from Matilda” and “This is for Matilda” and runs them straight into the ground.
The album’s quietest song sets my heart all a flutter at the beginning, because there are these light, tinkling bells that are pretty much the entire driving force behind the first verse, hinting at an ensemble-based form of baroque pop that reminds me quite strongly of Anathallo. Now there’s an underappreciated indie band that met its demise way before its time – and this track makes it easy to imagine that I’ve uncovered a lost B-side from their sprawling concept album Floating World. The bells only last for the first verse, though even as more conventional instruments take over, there’s a notable emphasis on restraint, occasionally bringing in a trembling guitar melody or even some plucked strings, but purposefully never hitting you over the head with any of it. The result is a slow, spacious piece that lets you feel the expanse of unexplored space behind it, as the music frequently breaks altogether for a punctuated, acapella refrain – “The dark. Seeks. Dark. Ooooohhhhh… Darker!” It wouldn’t be the same without giving those voices time to echo off into the night sky. I’m guessing that the unusual instruments and the precision timing required by all of the starting and stopping make this one a pain to play live, but it’s a perfect example of well this band can work with lighter textures, to the point where the absence of sound plays almost as important of a role as the beat or melody or lyrics.
Hands-down, this is the album’s most bizarre song. Somewhat audaciously, it was also the lead single. My surprise isn’t because the song’s not catchy – it is, if you can stand a heavy dose of quirkiness. Newman’s vocals are at their most Sandler-esque here, to the point where I think he’s making up baby babble on purpose. It parses as actual words when I read the lyrics, but even then, I’m amused by the sheer nonsense of it: “Deep greedy and Googling every corner.” (Are you allowed to use “Google” as a verb in a song lyrics without getting sued? I guess I should expect no less from a band named after a keyboard shortcut.) But this isn’t even the half of it – it’s more like a fifth of it. These wacky verses are the only repeating element of an otherwise constantly evolving song, which starts of with the group singing a “tra-la-la” hook that never comes back around again, and at times, I have to wonder if the band just made up unrelated musical segments as they went along, because hearing the rhythm change from soft to loud, the guitars go from smooth and ethereal to buzzing and mean, and the melody change directions on a dime through alternately tranquil and chaotic musical passage, it’s all a bit dizzying. It’s only a three and a half minute song, but it bucks the expected structure so thoroughly that I figure it must take the mnemonic skills of a seasoned prog-rock band to actually memorize it and play it back in concert. While there are elements of this song that annoy and confound me, I actually do think the ability to evolve a song and bring it to an unpredictable end is one of Alt-J’s strengths. They just take it to extremes here, quite possibly for no reason other than the sheer fun of it.
11. Interlude 3 (Piano)
I’m getting diminishing returns from these interlude tracks – the first was fascinating, the second is vaguely pleasant, and the third is apparently just here to fill space. It’s about fifty seconds of faint piano, accompanied by wordless falsetto, which could serve to set a ghostly mood for a wuieter song, but once again it doesn’t lead into the next track in a logical way.
The last two songs on the album, though they take on a more relaxed pace than most of it, are two of Alt-J’s most sonically pleasing creations yet. This one takes its sweet time to build up intensity, sneaking into your subconscious up until the “Gotcha!” moment when it snags with with this grandiose four-chord progression on the keyboard, manipulated to sound computerized and metallic. As far as sound manipulation goes, the band has a field day with this one, not loading it up with a wall of sound, but subtly splicing together interesting sounds through the use of computerized distortion and backmasking and sampling (even including a classroom of children greeting us at one point), and this all contrasts nicely with the organic guitar and piano melodies that the song gradually builds on. Despite the foreboding title, this is actually one of the album’s more relaxing songs, still pretty out there in the lyrics department with its oceanic themes and its repeated mantra “Breathe in, exhale” accompanied by Newman doing exactly that, and its oddball spelling out of the word “C-O-double-M-O-N” (which also appeared in “Fitzpleasure”, which makes me wonder if the word “common” has some deeper meaning to the band). The song eventually reaches a breaking point where the beauty can no longer be contained, and a stream of life flows into the song as the background vocals sing repeatedly: “Flood, flood, flood, flood of blood, blood, blood, to the heart, heart, heart.” I actually wish that climax lasted a little longer – there’s a quiet sense of celebration to it, as if something dead has miraculously come back to life, or someone teetering on the brink of suicide has discovered a new reason to live.
As you should have come to expect by now, the bizarre and the beautiful collide in the album’s final track, this time bringing together instruments like the glockenspiel (which any self-respecting baroque pop act’s gotta have these days) and some sort of Eastern-sounding, plucked string instrument (which most of them definitely don’t), as well as a comparatively more conventional string arrangement, for an abstract but stirring ballad about… yeah, I have no idea what it’s about. “Taro” is a staple of several Asian cuisines, which fits the vaguely Asian motif of the song, and while I’m not a huge fan of the pasty purple vegetable myself, the image of a taro patch whisks me away to the lush green scenery of Polynesia and Southeast Asia, so naturally I was going to be fond of this one. Why Newman speaks to “Taro” as if it’s a person, and what’s going on as he traipses through muddy tropical fields and recites the digits of pi to himself as if they were some sort of survival mantra are anyone’s guess, but the real kicker is this bizarre refrain, which sticks out like a sore thumb as his ragged voice is suddenly left all by its lonesome: “Do not spray into eyes. I have sprayed you into my eyes.” Either he’s just embarked on a really bad trip, or else he’s a soldier who failed to understand how napalm is supposed to work. Either way, the song is adorably strange, and I’m thrilled that the swirling vortex of sweet sounds gets longer than the usual track length on this album to fully unfold, peak, and then die down again.
Several minutes after “Taro” fades out, there’s a hidden track – and seriously, who still does this in the 2010s? This short song fades in an out almost like a whisper, completely avoiding drums and percussion, and it’s centered around some beautifully flowing finger-picked guitar, but it doesn’t seem to grow and change like the band’s other songs usually do. There are some nice, subtle harmonies, and some more lyrical observations that may hint at a troubling love-hate relationship (“Your sting red full stops my skin/Dotted, scratch scratch, now I’m bleeding/Legions upon legions of craftsmen handmade my feelings/For you”), but ultimately the song doesn’t seem to “go” anywhere or serve as a meaningful bookend to the album. It just feels like a stray thought from an album that has no need to smuggle its stray thoughts in by way of tailgating on much better songs.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Interlude 1 (Ripe & Ruin) $1
Interlude 2 (Guitar) $.50
Something Good $1.25
Dissolve Me $1.50
Interlude 3 (Piano) $0
Joe Newman: Lead vocals, guitars
Gwil Sainsbury: Guitarist, bass
Gus Unger-Hamilton: Keyboards
Thom Green: Drums
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.