[23 May 2011]
Aldous Huxley’s final book Island concerns the fictional land of Pala, a hedonic drug-fueled sustainable secular humanist utopia to stand in contrast with Brave New World’s dystopic future London. Friendly Fires have named their sophomore album after that fictional island, but those expecting anything literary, ideological, or visionary out of this effort will be underwhelmed. Instead, the band focuses on the euphoric rushes of decadence and pleasure. The dumb joy of Friendly Fires’s ecstatic celebration should be more than enough though to sustain those who are wise enough to not confuse this for anything other than a pop album.
Whereas their self-titled debut seemed to be one of longing, this new one is about relishing the moment after having realized that longing. There’s plenty of misery and icy remove to go around indie, hypnagogia, and house music of late (all of these genres have been invited to Pala too), so it’s enthralling to hear a band actually excited about being young and full of energy. I mean, a good band, which actually has the wares to back it up.
Opener “Live Those Days Tonight” is a defiance, an affront to those claiming that today’s music is depleted and unoriginal. Lyrics like “I can’t touch your precious past” and “You claim your history / Is beyond a man like me” are vague enough to represent any exalted era, but the band’s “Back to ’89 Rave Montage” video for the song, which ironically supports the song’s thesis by archival footage of old skoolers going mental, suggests that they are talking specifically about the house/techno axis.
This is not necessarily a destination where the Friendly Fires of the debut album could be categorized. On that collection, the group employed synths and higher-octane disco rhythms to great affect, but still gravitated towards house-inspired dancepunk a la the DFA’s relentless cadre of beat-based indie outfits. The production guidance of Paul Epworth (The Rapture, Bloc Party), however, turned this aesthetic crisp and shiny with ethereal wafts and hair-raising surges on loan from techno’s stimulation mechanisms and in tune with a compression-heavy wall of sound that categorizes hit factories like Dr. Luke.
Pala is even dancier and housier than Friendly Fires was, but it’s still a rock record in both instrumentation and structure. There are no freeform builds off endless loops on this LP, but there are rhapsodic verses and massive dynamic bridges and choruses that “soar”, to use a term recently coined by the Quietus’ Daniel Barrow. One would not have expected the band to attempt to make an entire album’s worth of cuts aping the intensity of “Jump in the Pool” and “Paris”, but that’s almost exactly what Pala shamelessly attempts and nearly succeeds at.
Pala’s pristine packaging and conservative formalism could even—fingers crossed—put it in direct competition with clubland radio, though its most direct kin—due in part to the LP’s tropical theme—are the Balearic-tinged rave rock of outfits like Delorean and the Cut Copy of Zonoscope. Like Cut Copy, Friendly Fires have been absent since 2008, popping up here and there with the odd single (“Kiss of Life”), collaboration (“Stay Here” with Azari & III), or mixtape (their Bugged Out! Compilation). Unlike the former band though, Friendly Fires’s adoption of a beached out backdrop is less of a radical transformation than a minor gradation. The powerhouse sound energy levels remain unaltered, while the already prominent hand and tom percussion of Jack Savidge syncopates itself to a Caribbean bent rather than stroboscopic pulses.
Frontman Ed MacFarlane’s lyrical settings oscillate between the clubs and the beach, seeking “sun” and “lights” with nearly the fervor reserves for “love”. There’s a triteness to the words which come off implicitly calculated in such gems as “it seems like I love you is the hardest thing to say”, a line from “Running Away” which is sung so rushed and awkwardly that one feels MacFarlane was almost embarrassed to say it himself.
At least it’s not “Seeing the mountains through the fog / Watching a film with a talking dog.” The latter is from “Hawaiian Air”, a breathtakingly catchy bout of idiocy about how awesome it is to be extreme and on vacation in a semi-exotic locale. It reads likes a Hawaii travel brochure that’s written as much for PR firms as music fans, but it is done beautifully. I’ll wait in cringing suspense for the TV ad this summer. In fact, there’s so much detail in the first five reverse reverb seconds of “Live Those Days Tonight” that it immediately reminded me of an overproduced jingle. It’s ear-catching in the same way, but Pala is full of those million dollar details.
Friendly Fires are unabashed and completely tactless in a way that goes beyond the Black Eyed Peas’s club-oriented magnetic poetry, the latter of which seem more like empty James Brown grunts than any serious statement of intent. This bears mentioning because it makes Pala a more complicated album than its summery vibe suggests. Their unapologetic pandering would be completely detrimental if they weren’t at least sonically interesting, be it in the ethereal Miami Vice slow burn groove of “Pala”, the pitch-bent warble of the sampled tape of “Blue Cassette”, or even the ‘80s avant-funk bassline of “True Love”, which reminds me the expired sounds of Material, Shriekback, or even Duran Duran.
One might say that Pala is a great album to hear, but not to listen to, but this would be to disavow the expert musicianship and spectacular production flourishes stationed throughout the album’s length. Pala is both delightfully cheesy and embarrassingly so. I’d never advise any one to turn off their brain when listening to a record, but Friendly Fires certainly seem to encourage this. The euphoric dawn rising off their island getaway is mighty persuasive.