The sugar rushin’ electro-rock of the Naked & Famous’ 2010 invigoratingly alive début Passive Me, Aggressive You had ‘Contender’ stamped all over it. Fronted by Alisa Xayalith and Thom “No relation to Kenny” Powers, this crafty Kiwi quintet seemingly saved from the fire all the precious things MGMT had so ceremoniously torched between Oracular Spectacular and Congratulations. Y’know, “Let’s jump on the bed ‘til it breaks” joy, “What does THIS button do?” wonder and starry-eyed pop so blessed with the mercurial mojo of melody it could unite punks and pensioners in sweet harmony.
Passive was so shiny, shiny, catchy, catchy it promptly became the inescapable sound du jour for everything, ever. Gossip Girl, Skins, One Tree Hill, Cabin in the Woods, Vampire Diaries, True Blood, yada yada. Teenage dreams a specialty, undead shenanigans optional. If In Rolling Waves is their attempt to progress, grow some whiskers and – eek, scary word alert! - “Mature” it’s often sadly at the cost of what made them so darn appealing. It’s as if in the three years since their début, Naked and Famous have aged in dog years. Gone are the top draw bangers, curious experimentation and playful pandemonium and in has come a soft-focus, ‘Marriage guidance counseling session’ purgatory replete with comfortable knitwear, sensible shoes and beige wallpaper. That’s no longer the fiery taste of piss n’ vinegar n’ sherbert dip but room temperature mineral water from Himalayan springs.
The band themselves have described this as a “Darker” record. For “Darker” see “Less Colourful” or “Duller”. Where Passive pogoed off the walls, Rolling Waves is content to ponder, pontificate, grump and wallow. Failure to launch is a common problem. Opener “A Stillness” initially teases spooksome ambient E.T. swirl with an acoustic, dandyish flourish akin to Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”. But just as you brace yourself for the G-Force roar and the subsequent face melting… it ends and that’s it. A slight but intriguing slowburn followed by minor fizzle and underwhelming fade and frustratingly typical of In Rolling Waves.
A crippling case of ‘paralysis through analysis’ cruelly curbs the enthusiasm for things “Naked” and/or “Famous” as the listener becomes captive witness to a carousel of chin-stroking, ‘progressive’ LA therapy meetings between Xayalith and Powers. The dour “Waltz” dabbles in psycho-babble over heavy-footed, plodding beats and sour guitars, “You walk in a rubble / You walk in a mess…There’s a fox in the nest.” It’s one step away from agreeing not to “Steal each other’s wind.” The marital strife snowballs into the rocky melodrama of “The Mess”, which is akin to a bitter, bruised husband and wife channeling their bile for each other through the medium of dodgy ‘80s karaoke. But not as much fun. Stress! Confessions! Forgiveness! Healing! Stained Walls!?! The main offender though is the seven-minute, grinchfest endurance test of the Powers-led “Grow Old” (Don’t! It’s a trap!). A Dawson’s Creek diary of high drama in haute couture. It possibly comes with its own wind machine. All serious face, finger-wagging hokum about blame n’ lies and amusingly includes that trumpcard smackdown “You’ve made your bed now sleep in it.” When a pissed Xayalith retorts “Don’t talk to meeeee…don’t walk with meeee!” it’s hard not to chortle at its preposterousness. The equally grouchy “We Are Leaving” brings more squabbles n’ scoldings still, “I don’t mean to make you curse / But it could have been much worse”. Despite briefly echoing the prowling synth swirl from Crystal Castles’ divinely unhinged “YES / NO” ‘Stagediving’ is sadly not on today’s menu.
Though much of In Rolling Waves suggests Naked & Famous have gone from ‘Youth gone wild’ to ‘Despondent, dead-eyed middle-agers’ overnight there are some rebellious sparks of dissent amongst the drones. Mutiny Ahoy! Tellingly they’re the Xayalith-heavy tracks. First single “Hearts Like Ours” is smart, sweet, sincere and – wowzer! – bursting with wildlife. “There’s an animal inside,” she swoons. It’s glossy bratpack deluxe and feels like a song built with resplendent rainbows not rain and furrowed brows. “We’re yet to bleed / All the time and energy” it bounces, kicking against the pricks. The slight, delicate “Golden Girl” strolls warm and bright whilst the buzzing “I Kill Giants” is ‘Transformers with synths riding unicorns’ cool. Dynamic ultra-shiny, unashamed and deliciously daft pop bursting with euphoria and too much Coca-cola. Elsewhere the acoustic, late summer in the park pop harmonies of “What We Want” flutter and sway like M83 at their most hazy-headed and romantic. The transcendent title track flies highest though. Majestic, epic stadium phoenix power-pop built with touch-the-sky verses and a sweeping chorus perfect for surfing, “LIKE! ROLLLLLLING WAYVVVES!”.
But despite these intermittent blasts of sunshine the album parts on typically miserablist terms. “To Move With Purpose” falters with its trace of melody staggering through a smog of atmospherics, “I’ve heard a million people yelling / Ranting about nothing!”. Closer “A Small Reunion” – two voices, acoustic guitars, violins, stools – dresses itself up as the heartbreaking ‘Not a dry eye in the house’ Grey’s Anatomy season finale but just feels… well, like a performance. “We’ll all get drunk and celebrate / Here’s to me and here’s to you!”. Never toast with water y’all.
Stripped of much of the effervescent raw power that made their début so infectiously enjoyable, In Rolling Waves ultimately makes for a disappointing and frustrating experience. Not enough punching. Not enough dreaming. O Youngbloods, who put out your fire? Maturity is no excuse to drop thy sword.