Amber Arcades' debut is a solid dream-pop album. A little more work on the pop side of the equation and she could be a lot more than solid.
Amber Arcades is the stage name of Dutch singer-songwriter Annelotte De Graaf. Her debut album is full of ‘90s-style dream-pop songs. De Graaf’s feathery voice is perfect for this style, and her jangly electric guitar playing complements her melodies nicely.
Fading Lines’ title track is a good example of Amber Arcades’ default setting. Relaxed mid-tempo guitar strumming opens the song and is joined shortly afterwards by a picked lead guitar. De Graaf sings through the verses in an equally relaxed fashion, but the chorus brightens up and gives her voice more energy. Most effective is the chord change right at the end of the chorus that briefly darkens the sound. The song ends with a full minute of vamping on the song’s two-guitar sound as De Graaf quietly and wordlessly sings in the background. “Fading Lines” is a decent song. It has a reasonably good melody, a slightly contrasting chorus, and a solid rhythm guitar-lead guitar construction. But it doesn’t do anything to go above and beyond.
That’s the case with most of the album. It’s pretty good throughout, making it easy to listen to without being boring. Many of the slower tracks end up being good features for De Graaf’s singing. The sparse “Constant’s Dream” is mostly just De Graaf and a single guitar, and when a drumbeat and piano enter past the halfway mark, it only enhances the drifting quality of the song. The languid “This Time” has a lazy morning, laying in bed feel to it, which enhances the dreamy part of Amber Arcades’ dream-pop without resorting to the early ‘90s touchstones that most of the album relies on. “Perpetuum Mobile” goes in the other direction, marrying a simple, rimshot-dominated beat to the bassline of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” and then adding organ and heavily fuzzed-out guitar as necessary. Despite its slow tempo, “Perpetuum Mobile” is one of the album’s liveliest songs due to its complicated arrangement.
Fading Lines' most ambitious song also turns out to be its best. The nearly seven-minute “Turning Light” establishes a quick hi-hat and snare beat and matches it with an equally metronomic bassline. The song lets this rhythm section bed push the song along, while the guitars and synths swirl around, flitting in and out. The vocals have more intensity than usual and a particularly memorable refrain. “When all is quiet / I’m inside / Turning light” is a striking statement and De Graaf is smart to return to it often throughout the song. There’s a long stretch in the back half of the song where the vocals drop out and not much happens melodically, and it demonstrates the solid bedrock of the song. It’s easy to get locked into “Turning Light”’s vibe and just drift along with it. And just when it starts to get old, De Graaf runs through the full chorus one more time before letting it slowly fade away in the final minute.
This is an album that will hit fans of the genre in the sweet spot. There isn’t much of the My Bloody Valentine-style wall of distorted guitars that came to define shoegaze here, which is why I keep using dream-pop as my go-to description. Amber Arcades uses reverb, jangling chords and drifting, repetitive musical figures to enhance what are mostly typical pop songs. But the pop side of De Graaf’s songwriting could use some work. Fading Lines is typified by a lot of great atmosphere without much in the way of great hooks. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t any hooks, just that they aren’t quite strong enough to make most of these songs individually memorable. As a whole experience, though, the album is an effective one.