Allowing the right amount of self-awareness into the creative process isn’t always easy, but Dutch Uncles have come closer than ever to finding that balance on Big Balloon.
In an interview for their last album, O Shudder, singer Duncan Wallis remarked, “It makes me cringe to think we’re trying to make a mature statement, but we are.” Their attempted adult turn certainly has adult activities on the brain with songs like “Babymaking”, “Drips” and “In n Out”, but their fourth album is not an abrupt downshift from Out of Touch In the Wild, which had been a sort of ‘second breakthrough’ that led to them touring and collaborating with Paramore.
If there is any sign of flux in the group’s identity here, it might be their new matching blue nylon bomber jackets. Dutch Uncles surely have it in them to make agreeable adult contemporary music at some point in the future, but that day has not arrived quite yet. Sure, “Achameleon” swaps electric for classical strings and urgently percussive piano for a mid-album chamber-pop break, and there is also a bit of French horn near the end of closing track “Overton”. Aside from a few such instances, however, the record feels like a bit of a rebuke to their feelings about where O Shudder was taking them.
That’s not to say Dutch Uncles haven’t been keeping pace toward further refinement of their strengths. Recapturing his zeal for rock sounds, bassist and composer Robin Richards intentionally places his and Peter Broadhead’s guitars to the front of “Big Balloon” where they tangle with Andrew Proudfoot’s drums before coming unknotted in the bright, buoyant chorus. This method is repeated to similar effect on “Same Plane Dream”, “Oh Yeah”, and “Sink”. The quality of a melody is one of those subjective values that is vaguely quantifiable at best, but postulating a notion like that of the “pure pop”, which writer John Robb frequently returns to in his eponymous book on the Stone Roses, it is easy enough to hear in Big Balloon a band one step closer to their own ideal.
The character of Northern England in recent pop music may not be as easy for outsiders to pin down as it was in the era of Madchester and before, but Dutch Uncles do bust subtle regional moves. There’s the loose-limbed interpretive dancing that Wallis performs in the videos for Out of Touch in the Wild singles “Flexxin” and “Fester”, which owes at least some of its freedom to Bez from Happy Mondays. Fans of the city’s rock history will recognize the name of the location where Big Balloon was laid down: the old Granada Studios, site of memorable televised performances by Joy Division and the Sex Pistols.
The footloose new wave bounce of “Oh Yeah” doesn’t soak in that post-punk history (though check out that bass solo right before the chorus of “Same Plane Dream”), but it does get an assist on vocals from nearby neighbors Everything Everything and Stealing Sheep. “Combo Box” wouldn’t be out of place on Field Music’s Commontime, the Sunderland band’s excellent album of snapping, splintered funk released last year. Despite their claims to have recently embraced some questionable dad rock, there’s nothing here that crosses over to the wrong side of so-unhip-it’s-hip. Maybe next time around they’ll go too far and break out the Kenny G discs.
Then again, it is always possible that with their sixth album Dutch Uncles will give smooth jazz the fashionable makeover it deserves, or at least use an alto sax in a tight and tasteful way. Big Balloon’s highs, and there are many, don’t owe much to either trends or the tried-and-true. Perhaps that’s part of the maturing process that Wallis had in mind.