[16 January 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
It’s a well worn rock ‘n’ roll cliché that personal adversity often makes for compelling music. You can add Lanterns on the Lake‘s Until the Colours Run to the list of albums that seem to have reaped artistic benefits from the dire straits in which they were created.
The Newcastle, England dream-folk band’s initial EPs and debut album, Gracious Tide, Take Me Home (2011), were well received but sold modestly. The band and many of their friends found themselves in poor financial condition, reflections of the slow economic recovery in their home country. Two band members quit before Lanterns on the Lake could begin recording their second album. When they did finally get to the studio, things started off poorly and they nearly split up.
Struggles of the personal, economic, and political sort are expressed in singer Hazel Wilde’s lyrics, though many of her words are draped in the band’s reverb-soaked, highly atmospheric sound. More crucially, that skin-of-their-teeth desperation makes its way onto Until the Colours Run‘s music too. The entire album seems to entail the band’s reaction to it. At times, it’s manifested as angst and defiance. The rhythm section is tougher than on the debut. On the faster, heavier songs, the drums are often compressed to the point of distortion. Paul Gregory’s guitars are louder and more expressive, sometimes even reaching toward shoegaze-type blankets of sound.
Until the Colours Run comes storming out of the gate with a dynamic, nothing-left-to-lose salvo, revealing a band that sounds, perhaps ironically, much more confident and much less delicate than it ever has before. “Elodie” announces itself with feedback followed by relentless drumming and searing, soaring guitar. Then it all goes quiet except for Wilde’s waifish voice and some echoing, electronic percussion. Then it explodes again, and so it goes. Finally the whole thing topples over into a heartbreaking, half time coda. It’s a powerful statement, but “The Buffalo Days” is even better. “When this started, I was living like an animal,” Wilde confesses, “And I didn’t have a hope in hell.” But then Sarah Kemp’s violin lends an almost jaunty bounce to the verse. The dynamics are more smoothed out and effortless as the song swings toward its sharp, evocative, and sneakily catchy chorus. It’s the sound of a band giving all it’s got, which turns out to be more than you thought it was capable of.
You wonder if Lanterns on the Lake can keep it up. Sure enough, Until the Colours Run does feature a hefty dose of the kinds of contemplative, downtempo musings that took up much of Gracious Tide, Take Me Home. But even here, the songs are deeper and richer and, basically, better-crafted than before. “Green and Gold” and “Picture Show” are stark piano ballads of almost crushing beauty, the latter using choir samples to haunting effect. “You Soon Learn” and single “Another Tale From Another English Town” underpin the navel-gazing with martial percussion and plaintive, U2-like guitar lines. The title track is a skyscraping, fairly straightforward dreampop anthem that recalls Doves or even Simple Minds.
A couple factors keep the album from being the out-and-out masterpiece it might have been. “The Ghost That Sleeps in Me” is a misdirected dirge with some a stuttering chorus that grates, breaking the spell Until the Colours Run has cast to that point. And then there is the matter of Wilde’s voice. It’s quite pleasant, though thin, and she sing-speaks most of her words with an unbroken air of bemusement. Often the effect works well, especially on the more shoegaze-leaning tracks. But sometimes you wish for more of the straightforward emotion of Gracious Tide, Take Me Home‘s “Lungs Quicken”, still arguably the band’s signature song. “Our Cool Decay” comes close to such a moment, though, as “the rains of a lost cause” pour down over a beautifully forlorn sea.
Actually, Wilde often gives the impression she’s keeping her emotions at arm’s length because it’s the only way she can survive them, carry on, and make the record. No, it hasn’t been an easy year for Lanterns on the Lake. But Until the Colours Run shows they’re a better band, with an exceptional album to show, for it.