“Hello Cleveland! We are BLOUSE and tonight we’re gonna rock you, erm, tonight”. As monikers go, Blouse isn’t going to strike fear into the souls of doting parents or incite knee-jerk holy joes’ to instigate emergency meetings down at the town hall before commandeering Billy Bob’s steamroller to destroy every last trace of this “Surely Satanic” band’s existence. No. Blouse is a cutesy, frilly-pink-with-pigtails My Little Pony band name. But think twice before laying out the cream tea and scones Vicar, for it’s a bit of a ‘fiendishly trojan horse’-style band name too. Rum doings are afoot as, like a bellyful of crafty Greeks polishing their knives, Portland’s Blouse like to play in the shadows.
Yes, this Blouse isn’t just fashioned from soft silks and emblazoned with tasteful multi-coloured paisley, but is more dead-eyed synth pop stained by betrayal, regret and shattered dreams; and what sounds like several decades buried under a provincial discothèque “Somewhere oop North”. A freshly tailored début this may be, but Blouse feels familiar, fitted, but ice cold to the touch. It’s dreamy, British indie pop cut from vintage cloth (‘78 to ‘91) but reflected by a future generation gazing back inquisitively through a thrift-store kaleidoscopic prism. It looks like indie synth-pop, feels like indie synth-pop but seems dusty, faded, torn.
“Firestarter” (no, not that one) marks the first pawprint on the catwalk; all swirly, shoegazy haziness beefed-up with low-slung Gothic bassline and cryptic situationist musings. “Let’s forget about the ceiling / it’s just made of stone”, offers singer Charlie Hilton, whose forlorn fairy vocals weave a compelling, little girl lost narrative throughout. Like the whole record, it’s fiendishly danceable in a smoky “Tuesday Nights’ Paint It Black; The Electro Goth & Alternative Disco - Cider Half-Price All Nite”- stylee. The driving “Time Travel” - a futurist felling of The Cure’s “A Forest” – picks up the pace just as the pills kick in, “Aah, aah, I was in the future yesterday but it looked nothing like this”. Perfect for striking your best Debbie Harry poses. All resplendent in a black plastic binbag dress, wraparound shades, fingerless pastel gloves and nonchalantly shuffling like Frankenstein’s monster on a conveyor belt. Somewhere, Andy Warhol says “Wow”.
There’s a potent, cinematic quality to Blouse. The night-terror rumble of “They Always Fly Away” is particularly gripping. The prowling bass, flickering neon ‘n’ flapping blackbirds; the beat echoing like gunshots in the night; the graveyard ambience and the swelling, foghorn groan circling the wagons, creeping closer, darker, closer. It conjures some of the leftfield pop experimentation of Broadcast with Hilton’s innocent vocal cast perilously at odds with the downbeat musical menace. Elsewhere the doleful “Controller” shivers like grey skies, empty streets and the neverending northern rain. It could have been born from that spooky abandoned warehouse in the “Love Will Tear Us Apart” video. “We could go somewhere / And be different / We could learn to love the controller”. This is a tragic-romantic record and despite the perennial frost, Blouse’s heart stays true and devoted. “I want to see you save me / Put your hand on my knee” Charlie woo’s during the slight, punchy “White” channelling The Glass Menagerie’s housebound heroine Laura Wingfield.
But claw away the dirt and the black fingernails and there’s a poptastic heart beating beneath this Blouse. The epic, wonky analogue synth waves that wash across “Videotapes” resonate with the suburban dreams of the Human League or Soft Cell. The crushed, pining ache of the eternally adolescent bedsit bard that drives all the finest pop, “What would it be like to see you again?”. In another life the pretty nostalgic, wistful twinkle of “Roses” could’ve been sung by Kylie Minogue. Albeit perhaps not in the same distant, dazey “Who drank all my Night Nurse?” drawl.
It’s “Into Black”, though, that gets the rosette and the hearty handshake. A future outsider’s musical forcefield, f’sure. Hilton the lonesome dove, tragico romantico and miles from home, forever slow dancing in the dark. Like a separated-at-birth sibling of You Say Party’s! “Laura Palmer’s Prom”, it’s all broken tiaras and smeared mascara. “I want to watch you fade into black”, she mourns. It’s the ‘comfort in feeling sad’ bottled and beckons “Walk this way” like a lighthouse through a sea of darkness. The fader “Fountain In Rewind” is similarly stellar. A colossal bassdrum loop worthy of “Radio Gaga”, some ‘fresh-outta-electro-shock-therapy’ ramblings (“I dive into my eyes / I’m like a fountain / But in rewind”), a talky-bit ‘en Français’ (Valhalla!) and a thousand disenfranchised car crash hearts punch the air and storm the palace. Escape to victory, you beautiful dreamers!
If there’s a flaw in the design of Blouse, it’s that sometimes it can feel too disconnected, too frosty. It possesses a relentless thousand-yard-stare and it’s all-devouring, melancholic sighing, “May cause slight drowsiness” for some. So no “Driving or operating heavy machinery”, please, folks. Minor imperfections aside, there’s much delicious darkness here. Where there’s light it shines twice as bright. That Blouse can instantly fashion such elegantly artful dream pop but prefer to drag it by its coattails through puddles and mud is admirably mischievous, too. Even in a golden age of luxurious, arch pop-noir the hypnotically captivating Blouse definitely deserves your attention. Given time - and a few more moves - the ‘not-frilly-actually’ Blouse may yet pose a real threat to this glorious nation’s youth. Billy Bob, keep that engine running!