Canyons didn’t need to open their debut, Keep Your Dreams, with two minutes of cresting atmospherics. But then, the Perth natives also didn’t need to bedazzle the first proper track, “Under the Blue Sky”, with Italo-style synth stabs, exotic pet sounds, a wailing sax, and sweet nothings in a francophone baritone. Such is par for course, though, for the album, which revels in the novel tawdriness of disco. But if the sound is sometimes outlandish, the songwriting is disappointingly not, taking refuge as it does in familiarity and irony when it should be delivering on the intro’s promise of something epic.
On these modest terms, Keep Your Dreams is front-loaded. The glitzy, empty fun of “Under the Blue Sky” leads into “My Rescue”, which stays on the dance floor while giving glimpses of the duo’s indie-rock soul. Distortion fuzz and a tense piano figure form a groove sufficient for the eventual barrage of maracas, 808s, and tapped bongos. A fey lead sings about getting liberated by love as if the song’s nonverbal components didn’t already signify as much. As far as Primal Scream impressions go, it isn’t bad, and it’s one of the album’s stronger tracks. But, like “Under a Blue Sky”, it doesn’t go far enough. It touches base with its bygone referents without surpassing them.
The rest of Keep Your Dreams proceeds along these lines, vacillating between acid house and the rock bands inspired by it. That latter category could be expanded to include more recent incarnations of the sound, like fellow Aussies Cut Copy, but also Hercules & Love Affair, whose neo-disco pose gets aped on “See Blind Through”. Canyons, like these groups, is hardly a band in the traditional sense, forgoing the constrictions of a static set-up for a free-wheeling, cosmopolitan production ethos. All the better for mapping out a rich sonic universe, which they do with as much deceptive ease as M83 or Basement Jaxx. Besides, categories are so ten years ago.
But dancing through this post-genre utopia, Canyons never quite finds an identity to call its own. The lyrics on Keep Your Dreams pay endless lip-service to letting the beat set you free, but the music itself is surprisingly restrained. Fidelity to a generic heritage isn’t necessarily a problem – I mean, Hercules & Love Affair, for Christ’s sake – but a solid tune goes a long way, and not much on Canyons’ debut qualifies. Even the fiercer grooves never quite sink their claws in.
Maybe it’s a defensive move, a resistance to the potentially unhip affectation of trying too hard – which has its very own kind of affectation, of course. That’s the only explanation I can manage, anyway, for the disastrous “Sun and Moon”, in which the main vocalist once again does his best Bobby Gillespie in what can only be called the least sincere form of flattery. His thin, nasal timber, done no favors by tinny recording, comes dangerously close to the mock-crooning featured – satirically – on South Park, and if that sounds facetious, well, I really wish it were. The bizarre choice to perform this way, anomalous for the album as a whole and inexplicable in and of itself, turns an otherwise merely featureless post-punk tune into something I wanted to unhear.
Although none of the other songs offend the sensibilities in quite the same way as “Sun and Moon”, they do similarly suggest that Canyons would do well to recalibrate vocally. Many of the better moments are instrumental, including a Prince-ly interlude that perks up the album’s otherwise saggy midsection, and the aforementioned sax, which takes center stage in the Trax Records pastiche “Blue Snakes”. But by the end of three quarters of an hour, only the irresistible “When I See You Again” manages to match “My Rescue” as a worthwhile single, sprucing up guitar jangle to be just slightly gayer than a funky Stone Roses.
Finally, Keep Your Dreams ends how it begins: open-ended and spacey, claiming the headiness of a concept album without really earning it. The presence of a sitar, inexcusably stiff, makes the psychedelic agenda of “And We Dance” quite clear. The idea is probably to leave a listener wanting more. But after such a gaudy, yet wan, set of songs, isn’t that kind of redundant?