[25 February 2010]
Tthe Temper Trap are not just another post-AC/DC cheeky lad rocking or fantasy-laden electro band from Australia. They set their sights high—to U2-style delusions of grandeur, in fact. On their debut album, Conditions, Jeff Abbiss, a music producer best known for giving the Arctic Monkeys’ second album its crunch, whips up the kind of “wall of sound” found on U2’s Joshua Tree. Guitars are heavily delayed and crescendos are sweeping, and both coalesce into a painting of the empyreal. It’s easy to chuckle, but the London-based Melbournite quartet have displayed such excellence in their songwriting on a debut so finely executed that mud flung their way for being empty imitators of ridiculed outfits like Coldplay ought to be fully pulverised. Even Bono himself largely escaped suspicions of being a dubious lyricist thanks to his sheer impressiveness and presence.
For the Temper Trap, it all begins with Dougy Mandagi. The lead vocalist is fond of confining his voice to the upper reaches of what’s humanely possible, yet this doesn’t stop him from contorting, quivering, sweetening, soaring, and tingling your vertebrae. In other words, Mandagi dispenses the kind of histrionics more worthy of your attention than Bono’s faintly irritating bellow or Chris Martin’s chronically melancholic croon. In fact, you don’t even need to know what he’s singing about (mostly platitudes) to be moved.
On “Sweet Disposition”, which comes etched with the kind of wailing refrain immortalised by “With or Without You”, Mandagi’s enters with all the sublime delicacy of Jeff Buckley in full falsetto. As the song’s chiming guitars gather pace, Mandagi’s voice gathers urgency but bares none of Bono’s self-righteous pomp. In effect, it’s a climax you want to experience over and over if for nothing else but its beauty. On the balladic “Fools”, which sounds like U2 traipsing around with Radiohead circa In Rainbows, Mandagi fleshes out the sparse echoing backdrop layer by layer with his disarming Bee Gees-like harmonies.
Mandagi can also do Brian Wilson-type “sunny”, but on “Down River”, his voice is altogether more interesting. It sounds like the Beach Boy if he were mimicking Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold.
Denying the musical pathos of Conditions is about as difficult as declining a charmer. “Rest” gently creeps into cartharsis, its momentum made irresistible by the motorik percussion, slow guitar riff buildup, and, of course, Mandagi’s voice, which is at its most visceral and frayed. “Soldier On”, on the other hand, begins with a placid acoustic accompaniment stroked by Mandagi’s croon, which is very “Chris Martin”, only much more compelling. The song then reboots unexpectedly into high-octane rock with Mandagi howling Bono-style into a cloudless night. “Soldier On” could have come off cheesy and unhinged, yet it doesn’t.
When Conditions veers off the stadium rock template, it is almost always a delight. “Fader”, which serves up some finger-snapping synth-pop, provides a welcome respite from the album’s plaintive atmosphere, as does “Down River”, a folk number marked by polyrhythms, horns and large childish sing-along choruses. “Resurrection”, meanwhile, pulses with the seething darkness of Pink Floyd, a band you can’t be too wrong to reference.
Being pretty much wrinkle free, Conditions sets the bar high for a followup that doesn’t sound like more of the same. However, throughout the album, we are thrown morsels of the quartet’s potential to escape from being typecast. And I’m sure there are plenty of admirable things one can do with songwriting prowess and a lead singer who can be Jake Shears one minute and Chris Martin the next. For now we should just enjoy the fact that the Temper Trap sound like Coldplay as we would have liked to hear them.