The sophisti-pop trio returns after five years away. Cue city lights and weak cocktails.
Ivy instrumentalist Adam Schlessinger finds himself in the unique position of being a member of not one but two bands that must wonder where they fit in, in 2011. Fountains of Wayne, for whom Schlessinger is bass player and a principal songwriter, released Sky Full of Holes a matter of weeks before All Hours' street date. Fountains of Wayne's classic power-pop is at odds with current art-school and beard rock trends in "indie" music. "College rock" was how you might have identified Fountains of Wayne when their debut was released in 1996. Now the term no longer has meaning.
When Ivy released their first couple albums in the mid-'90s, college radio played them, too. Their more cosmopolitan, late-night sophisti-pop slotted in with the likes of Autour de Lucie, Saint Etienne, the Cardigans and the like. Now those bands have been relegated to cult status or disappeared completely. Pop music, indie or otherwise, comes with an obligatory set of '80s references. All Hours doesn't go all synth-pop. But Ivy's first album in half a decade does represent something of a rethink from the band.
The trio of Schlessinger, fellow instrumentalist Andy Chase, and singer Dominique Durand constructed All Hours around programmed rhythms. Then, they added keyboards and clean guitar lines, rather than the other way around. The result is a crisp, often danceable album that sounds even more immaculate than the band's previous work. The trade off is that Ivy lose some of the dynamics and dreamy, head-in-the-clouds feel that has made their best work special.
The best thing you can say about music like this is it sounds deceptively effortless. That's true of opener and lead single "Distant Lights". The song starts out with an almost-house, four-on-the-floor rhythm and Space Invaders synth effects, before Durand's voice drifts in. The whole song floats by without changing much at all, which seems to be the point. It's slick, direct, and concise, if nothing else a confident statement of the band's renewed sense of purpose.
The problem is that sense of purpose is too often in service of undistinguished, flat-out boring songs. "Fascinated" tries for cold, European attitude, but Schlessinger and Chase can't get beyond annoying keyboard flourishes, while Durand gets stuck repeating the title in place of a proper chorus. "You Make It So Hard" takes a different tack, straight-up jangly guitar pop a'la Acid House Kings. But, again with that obnoxious keyboard, it's more cloying than charming. "She Really Got To You" is a transparent Saint Etienne rip, complete with gentle guitar arpeggio, punchy beat, and Eurodisco chorus with cooing. It's catchy, but, like much of All Hours, it mainly reminds you of what others have done better.
The more moody All Hours becomes, the better it is. "Suspicious" is nearly subliminal, a minor-key keyboard pulse and a toy piano line, and some well-placed silence. "World Without You" gets the chilly European disco thing right, understated string synths and less-is-more arrangement making it a compelling glitter ball moment. "Lost In the Sun" is nearly as good, with some friendly acoustic guitar strumming warming things up a bit. Still, nothing about these songs is original or truly special. Your perspective is skewed a bit because milquetoast stands out against a truly dull background.
Durand becomes a near-liability here, too, sorry to say. The more stripped-down approach exposes her heavily French-accented voice as one-dimensional. The lyrics only exacerbate the situation. They're full of the wounded, tough-love clichés you might come to expect from this type of music. All Hours' idea of a tell-off is "We've got to find some time to get together…how's never?". Sizzling sound effect not included.
Ivy get credit for trying something a bit different while sticking to their principles, even though those principles are becoming passé by many standards. One cliché that has merit here is sounding effortless often takes a great deal of work. You just wish more of that work had gone into the songwriting.