When a band boasts not one, but two theremin players in its lineup, that’s usually not a good sign. The B.S. alarm sounds; you’re put on full, Defcon One, Pretentiousness Alert. The band’s moniker, Departure Lounge, immediately evokes thoughts of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, and the presence of French chill-out master Kid Loco as the producer of their new album only encourages you to expect a long exercise in minimalist, knob-twiddling, techno tedium. Then, when you learn that Departure Lounge, a quartet of musicians from the South of England, are now based in Nashville, of all places, you don’t know what to make of these guys. It’s a good idea to simply let their music speak for itself, and their new album, Too Late to Die Young, speaks volumes, and is easily one of the best albums of the first half of 2002.
Ambitious yet understated, eclectic but still accessible, Too Late to Die Young combines myriad musical influences with outstanding production and mainstream accessibility. Fronted by singer/guitarist Tim Keegan, who in the past collaborated with Robyn Hitchcock, and also appeared on Kid Loco’s own most recent album, Departure Lounge deliver songs that, on their own, are stylistically different (that’s what you get when you have a band consisting of four multi-instrumentalists), but mesh perfectly with one another on record. Whether it’s a relaxed, trip-hoppy ballad, or a buoyant tune exploding with pop hooks, every song here is a winner.
The first single, “King Kong Frown”, a Lou Reed-esque, semi-comic tale of redemption resounding with light humor (“They took me off the Empire State / And put me in a cage / Locked me in and left me there with a female half my age / Is it any wonder it kinda wore me out”), is a perky, organ-driven song with Motown-styled horn fills. As Keegan sings, “I was looking for rainclouds and then the sun came out / Now I got nothin’ to complain about,” the background horn playing turns into a Beefheart-styled jam, ending the song on a whimsical note.
The languid, sumptuous “Straight Line to the Kerb”, and especially the fabulous “What You Have Is Good” are college radio hits begging to happen. The latter, a cross between the memorable melodies of Doves and the inspired, country-tinged, distorted guitar rock of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, with its background “oooh”‘s and handclaps, is as irresistible a song as you’ll hear right now. The title says it all; it’s a meditation on people’s good qualities, heavily accenting the positive. What could be better than that?
“I Love You”, with its combination of fuzzed-out effects, super-romantic lyrics (“The first time I ever saw you / I knew I’d seen your face before / And now I’ve got you here I / Will have to count the days no more”), soulful trumpet and Curtis Mayfield-like flute fills, and its slow, gradual buildup into an understated, yet passionate epic, totally smacks of Spiritualized. Only here, it sounds less overwrought, less desperate; instead, it’s happy and content. The song segues into “Alone Again, and . . .”, another ballad (with Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde contributing guitar work), but a completely different one, with the emphasis on simple acoustic guitar and a gorgeous Nick Drake, or, dare I say, Belle & Sebastian melody. Two other ballads, “Over the Side” (a Mercury Rev-like duet by Keegan and Sing-Sing vocalist Lisa O’Neill), and the gentle “Silverline”, are also both excellently done.
The centerpiece of Too Late to Die Young is the stirring trip-hop-inspired instrumental “Tubular Belgians in My Goldfield” (the title an obvious jab at Mike Oldfield — dig the bad pun). Equal parts Angelo Badalamenti and Goldfrapp, its minimal arrangement of twangy guitar, real drums, loops, and keyboards nonetheless combine to make a richly textured, absorbing seven minutes that holds your attention throughout, something that’s hard to come by in most ambient music. There’s yet another neat segue at the end of this song as well, as it immediately breaks into “Be Good to Yourself”, a variation on a whacked-out Tom Waits blues stomp (complete with tuba). Both the Waits and Captain Beefheart influences converge on the laid-back instrumental “Coke & Flakes” (with Hitchcock providing guitar accompaniment) a little later on.
The album’s final two tracks end things in fittingly ethereal fashion. The instrumental “Animals on My Mind”, whose vocals by O’Neill are so otherworldly they deserve to appear on a Sigur Rós album, is brief, but beautiful, and segues (again, a segue) into the twelfth, untitled track, which might as well be called “Animals on My Mind” too, with the lines, “Dogs are short and dogs are tall / Dogs from many different foreign places / Sitting still, waiting / For barking at the moon.” The many-layered vocals by Keegan and O’Neill during the final minutes, harmonizing, weaving in, out, and around each other over an insistent beat, float you up higher and higher, like a child’s balloon floating away in the sky.
Departure Lounge are happy, and are not afraid to show it. They want to prove there’s more to rock music than the whole dying young and leaving a beautiful corpse myth too many people are obsessed with. Keegan explains the album’s title: “You don’t die when you’re 21 . . . You basically have to deal with the fact that you’re going to be alive for a long time. So get used to it, and get into it.” Like their fellow compatriots Doves, Badly Drawn Boy, and even Pulp on their last record, they’re out to prove there’s more to UK music than dour, rainy day mopefests. There’s no crime whatsoever in being musically ambitious, shamelessly positive, and possessing good pop sense as well, and Too Late to Die Young possesses all these qualities, in abundance.