Penelope Isles are a band from Brighton, UK, led by siblings Lily and Jack Wolter. Which Way to Happy, their second full-length, covers a lot of musical territories while remaining firmly entrenched in the indie rock genre. The Wolters and their collaborators have obvious enthusiasm for their music. By all accounts, this is the kind of album that should be right up my alley, and yet I ended up finding it a bit dull.
“Terrified” opens the record with bright, jangly electric guitars, active drums, and subtle keyboards. Jack sings in a high register, occasionally slipping into falsetto. The song includes a very effective bridge where everything gets quiet and gradually builds back up to the main guitar riff. It’s an upbeat, three-minute song about anxiety, and it starts the album on really solid footing. If there’s an element missing it’s a strong chorus, although the guitar riff essentially serves that function here.
From there, the record moves on to “Rocking at the Bottom” and “Play It Cool” as Lily takes over on lead vocals. “Rocking” has a bit of an ’80s new wave feel, with brittle guitars and shimmering synths. It sets this mood and occasionally undercuts it with shoegaze-esque guitar noise for brief moments throughout the track and especially at the end. At this point, the song essentially stops and launches into a 40-second coda of noise. “Rocking” also features Lily softly cooing her vocals and effectively getting buried in the mix, and there isn’t a melodic guitar or keyboard part to make up for it. That leaves the track with a lot of atmosphere but almost no melodic center.
“Play It Cool” is more of a ’70s-style dance-rock track. Lily’s vocals work much better here, and the sporadic “Shoo-bop shoo-bop” backing vocals are a nice touch. This song does have a strong melody, and the post-chorus line “Take your head outside” may be the song’s catchiest bit. The messy, J. Mascis-style guitar solo from Jack is a welcome counterpoint to the relaxed feel of the rest of the song. Yet even with all these positives, at 4:35 run-time, the track is just a bit too long.
As the record continues, Penelope Isles continue to try on different styles. “Iced Gems” uses a synthesized beat that recalls Radiohead’s “Idioteque”, but fills the song with twinkling keyboards and delicate singing from Lily. “Miss Moon” moves slowly, but it starts at full volume with a massive wall of sound. That wall includes big drums, crashing cymbals, choral vocals, synths, and strings. After almost 90 seconds of this, the wall disappears, leaving just synths, guitar, bass, and drums and a pretty standard indie-rock arrangement. Lily retains the vocal melody from the beginning, but the track never returns to the massive sound of the opening. Instead, the lyrics finish out a bit after the three-minute mark, and the band continues jamming for another 90 seconds. The groove continues while Lily messes around on guitar, sometimes approaching a solo and sometimes just sort of playing notes.
“Sudoku” begins with a slow, quiet, minor-key feel, driven by a simple drumbeat and a lonely guitar riff. Jack’s singing matches the mood of the music, relaxed and melancholy. This is one of the more effective songs on the album because it sets such an intense mood and changes things up just enough throughout, allowing the volume to grow and different instruments to feature without losing its atmosphere. “Have You Heard” comes next, trying on a pure power-pop sound with catchy guitar riffs and synths. Lily’s voice is pushed to the front, and the song wraps up in two minutes and 47 seconds, the briefest on the album.
The rest of the album features more restless genre-hopping. “Pink Lemonade” is a classic Britpop-style slow moper of a song, moving glacially with strings thickening the arrangement. “Sailing Still” is a ballad that creeps along, occasionally feeling extremely heavy and often seeming delicate. It’s like Portishead meets mid-period Björk, but without the verve. “11 11” is the kind of naked acoustic track that often closes albums, just Lily and a guitar, with sporadic string and percussion intrusions.
“In a Cage” actually finishes the record, using nearly half of its running time on low, rumbling ambient noise. Eventually, Jack arrives to sing a straightforward melody that he doubles on an acoustic guitar while the noise continues to hum in the background. The touchpoint here is early Badly Drawn Boy, but this feels like a two-minute song that drifts along for nearly five.
The siblings are solid musicians and their bandmates, including bassist Henry Nicholson and strings arranger/performer Fiona Brice, enhance these tracks. The songwriting itself leaves something to be desired, however. Getting the various musical styles right takes work, but many songs lack a strong melodic center or a compelling element. Many tracks drag without a big hook or novel sound, despite only one piece here passing the five-minute mark.
The other big issue is personality or lack thereof. The Wolters love a lot of different music, and they spend much of Which Way to Happy approximating those influences. For me, though, they fail to establish “their” sound, either as vocalists or instrumentalists. Instead, the album ends up as a mildly effective collection of subgenre pastiches that only occasionally manages to rise above the recognition of each style.