Popstrangers's second album leaves behind the grinding rock heft of its debut for new pop textures that can be striking.
When last we left Popstrangers on their fine debut album Antipodes, the band was twisting snarling guitars and big hooks, simultaneously re-imagining and paying homage to rock sounds from two decades ago. Since then, though, things have changed. The New Zealand band has moved to London, and the sense of a new place, of moving out of your comfort zone, of the things and people you lose along to the way to growing up, to finding your corner of the world, these feelings are all over the expansive, gauzy Fortuna.
The album represents change in more than just the personal, as well. The band has, for the most part, left behind the grinding rock heft of the last record for new textures. This album is all about psychedelic pop sounds, '60s-pop lushness, even the jangle-pop edge of New Zealand music institution, Flying Nun Records. Popstrangers, as it turns out, are quite familiar with pop and many of its traditions, and if the group continues to honor them while shaping them into its own sound, the band has put a new set of traditions in its sights this time around.
"I never turn around and look back," singer Joel Flygel insists on "Distress", but the album does seem to puzzle over what was. On "Country Kills", Flygel says "Oh my country will kill me know, but whatever." If he's being a little tongue in cheek, he also reflects a curious exhaustion, one where you're tired of a place, or a time in your life, but that fatigue keeps you from moving on. On "Violet", Flygel insists there's a place in the mind that doesn't have this worry, that "isn't blue," and he goes in search of it. Elsewhere on the record, friends fight, people split apart, people get left behind, people and places get missed.
The haze of the music on the album lends itself well to this kind of wistful thinking. It's not quite nostalgia on Fortuna, but rather a taking stock of where you just were -- geographically and personally -- which is a process that requires peeling out the emotions that cloud that stock. The band is at its best, and covers this fertile emotional ground well, when it clashes harsh elements with the dreamy. Wobbling, low guitars rumble their way into the lush, expansive softness of the chorus on "Don't Be Afraid". "Tonight" starts as a jangling bit of lean pop, but expands into buzzing guitar attacks and crashing cymbals. The brittle edge of the verses on "Destine" don't set us up for the lilting sway of the chorus, and the jarring shift is a welcome surprise. In these moments, the band takes a newfound sweet pop sensibility and merges it with their love of guitar tones. If they take the Flying Nun sound and expand it to arena size, they don't forget the straight-forward hooks those eccentric songs were built on.
There are some growing pains in this expansion of sound. Where Antipodes sounded big in its tones but controlled in structure, Fortuna can get away from itself. Often, as on songs like "Country Kills" and later on "Her", the band gets too enamored with its big choruses and repeats them one or two too many times, running out of steam before they get to the end. Elsewhere, the bigness of the sonic palate doesn't serve the song. Soaring keys, tangled guitars, and big up-in-the-mix drums can be exciting, but they all seems to be competing for the spotlight on the latter half of "Her", and it muddles what is otherwise a solid pop tune. "Sandstorm" is built on a slick riff, and ethereal backing vocals, but the big layers of the song abstract its strongest elements. There's an ambition to the sound of Fortuna that works, and it mirrors the confusion of the emotions nicely. It also signals an interesting shift for a band we're just getting to know. But some of these songs try too hard to be the big, dramatic, hologram-on-the-wall Wizard when they sound just fine as the man behind the curtain.