[31 January 2011]
PopMatters Music Editor
For Allo Darlin’, wearing your influences on your sleeve is the sincerest form of flattery. So what if the up-and-coming London band sometimes comes off like a carbon copy of Camera Obscura? After all, it’s not like those critical darlings didn’t seem like a rip off of Belle and Sebastian at first, or that Stuart Murdoch himself wasn’t written off as a Morrissey and Nick Drake wannabe. And, yeah, it’s no coincidence that there’s a family resemblance between Allo Darlin’ and the late, great Heavenly, considering that frontwoman Elizabeth Morris moonlights in indie-pop hall-of-famer Amelia Fletcher’s current gig, Tender Trap. When it comes down to it, the biggest compliment you can give these newcomers is that they remind you a lot of the groups that are their obvious inspirations.
While the quartet’s brand of twee-pop might not be exactly groundbreaking or trailblazing, that doesn’t mean you won’t wanna stick around and listen to what Allo Darlin’ comes up with on its self-titled debut. If anything, there’s a sense of intimacy and emotional verisimilitude that these upstarts can conjure up that the more established acts mentioned above outgrew a while back. With jittery strumming falling in and out of time with giddy, anxious drumbeats, opening track “Dreaming” makes a strong first impression by creating a déjà vu moment, its catchy, intuitive melodies striking just the right chord like something you’ve heard before—except that you haven’t. Missed connections rarely come off so perfectly in tune as they do on the boy-girl duet between a breathy, cooing Morris and Stephin Merritt-like baritone Monster Bobby, each chasing the other with neither aware of it as they repeat the same lines, “But here in your arms / It’s heaven / I can wait for you now / But not forever”. The way “Dreaming” sounds, happy endings don’t matter as much as what’s happening along the way for Allo Darlin’.
Like its illustrious predecessors, Allo Darlin’ revels in the process, however the stories turn out. Following up “Dreaming” on an even catchier note, “The Polaroid Song” is a classic seven-inch single, getting nostalgic for an era before the band’s time both in theme and tone. Expressing second thoughts over decisions she’s yet to make, Morris wonders about what could have been and what could still be: “Will we still look happy / When we’re not super overexposed / Will we still look happy / When we’re wearing our normal clothes”. While “Silver Dollars” might be grounded more in the here-and-now as a theme song for starving artists, Morris’ wry observations on it about being young and poor in the city are just as yearning and touching, bittersweet in a way that accentuates both the bitter and the sweet. When Morris matter-of-factly reports, “And, yeah, we played that show / But we spent what we made on the cab”, she tugs your heartstrings and hits your funny bone at the same time. “Silver Dollars” could be a soundtrack to any number of bad situations, finding the silver lining in failing to make ends meet.
The band’s slice-of-life vignettes are all the more vivid and poignant when they get referential, like on “Woody Allen”, when Morris daydreams about whether her trials and tribulations could be source material for auteurs. Even though she admits she’s not as cerebral as Diane Keaton in Manhattan or as complex as Bibi Andersson in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, Morris gives you a good idea of the character she is through her pop culture footnoting. But sometimes, mundane stories like hers might just be better than the movies, since Morris realizes that as bad as the rough spots in her relationship are, they aren’t “Bergman bad”. Then there’s irrepressible pop of “Kiss Your Lips”, on which she puts the chorus of her favorite Weezer song (“El Scorcho”, if you’re keeping score) in quotation marks to get across what it feels like to be blissfully and excruciatingly crushed out. The thing is, though, her own lines, like the chorus of “And I kissed your lips / They were kind of salty / And I kissed lips / They were kind of sweet, too”, convey the message pretty well themselves.
As is the case with twee-pop even at its best, there are moments when Allo Darlin’ can get carried away with its cutesy sensibilities, when smiles can turn into winces. For instance, “Heartbeat Chili” is too cheesy and saccharine in mixing its food metaphor with a forlorn love story, while the “Que Sera Sera” quoting “What Will Be Will Be” is too clever by half, more precious than heartrending. But it’s easy to forgive a few moments when Allo Darlin’ might be trying too hard, because you can tell the band is putting itself out there on such a clever, honest, and overachieving effort as this debut album. So when Morris earnestly sings, “We do it / Because we love it / And I’m here / Because I love you” on “Silver Dollars”, she sounds like she means it, which is as good as any reason why Allo Darlin’ already stands out.