British pop with a healthy dose of variety, and a persistent optimism that feels grounded and vital.
It seems like damning with faint praise to call an album "happy", especially living in troubled times, when we like to point out that we live in troubled times, and doubly so if the album in question is titled No Need to Be Downhearted. We want "gritty", or "deep", or "dark", or "wild", or even "real", but "happy" isn't the kind of adjective anyone really shoots for when making an artistic statement. Immediately, the guilt by association leads to notions of breezy twee or super-saccharine bubblegum pop. And despite there being something undeniably happy here, in this case those associations couldn't be further from the truth. Instead, the Electric Soft Parade's latest release is "happy" in a soothing way, an attempt at comfort and encouragement rather than blissful ignorance. No Need to Be Downhearted recognizes that life is full of fears and pitfalls, but it beckons listeners to pick themselves up, survive, and make the situation better. And in these troub... eh, you know the rest.
Already well-established in the UK after being nominated for a Mercury Prize for their debut album, 2002's Holes in the Wall, despite naming their 2003 follow-up The American Adventure, the band has never made the leap over the Atlantic to US shores until now. Led by brothers Alex and Tom White (who pull double duty as members of Brit indie supergroup Brakes), the inclination to make comparisons to Oasis is inevitable, but the White brothers bring a different sonic sensibility to their pop than the Beatles-loving Gallaghers. No Need to Be Downhearted exists in a middle ground between the shoegaze anthems of Doves and the pop eclecticism of Badly Drawn Boy, with none too subtle shades of guitar-driven psychedelia as the mortar. In fact, had the situation for Kindercore been better at the time of Holes in the Wall's acclaimed release, it's easy to imagine the Electric Soft Parade having found a kindred US home on the label.
Unsurprisingly, then, No Need to Be Downhearted is a hook-filled feast of pop rock. Opening with the lilting vocals of "Part 1" of the title track, the soft opening piano notes growing into a Beach Boys-like orchestration and setting the stage for the clear thematic drive of the album with lyrics "Don't get caught up / Be the person and the people that you love / All your life", and introducing the album with a sort of gentle harmony that the brothers note pretty much flies in the face of current track list convention for new releases. It's the kind of move that casually implies that what is to follow is going to make a statement, and for the most part it does so. The trembling final note slips into an intro that nods towards Of Montreal, and "Life in the Backseat" kicks off with the first big pop song, a synth-laden charmer that moves from verses chronicling the decay of a relationship to choruses extolling breaking free.
It's the direction that the whole disc seems to take on, a little self-help handbook for the brokenhearted but not broken, and the thing that saves it from seeming like a platter of platitudes is the honesty and forthrightness that carries throughout. Scenes of depression and weariness are empathetically delivered only to be lifted up for choruses that rise up into an ether of warm-blanket forgiveness. It's a clear progression on "Woken by a Kiss", which underscores the shift by coating the verse in lush shoegaze guitar, only to break into a wash of chimes and organs chorus. But really, it transcends the track to become the core of the whole album -- yeah, life sucks sometimes, but you'll be okay.
It's a theme that would also be a little too treacle if the band didn't dress it up in various guises, but the strength of the Electric Soft Parade proves to be sonic diversity. If you've been starting to feel numb about the state of British pop rock in the wake of post-Coldplay chart-toppers, here's your palliative. Swinging into the big single "If That's the Case, Then I Don't Know", the White brothers take on Arcade Fire rock filtered through Edwyn Collins, with an incredibly juicy fuzz guitar tone drowning the terse high note chords. Of course, since this is ESP, the song shifts gears into a brilliant space-rock Doves chorus. It's the blissful stadium rocker that every good Brit band of the day needs, but just to throw the wrench into the works, the song concludes with a sudden downshift into early Pink Floyd psychedelia.
It's this coda-loving composition style that will make you either love or hate the band. Songs are never really content to mine a consistent grove, and if there isn't a full-out coda or two dropped in place, there are the style-shift choruses and slippery outros to make the songs dynamic. It gives the songs here a lot of energy and interest points, and of course, no end of hooks, but if you want your music to build up on a steady riff or melody, the cartwheeling may be a turn off. It should be noted here that the White brothers made this one a completely personal project, with all the instruments, vocals, production, and engineering handled by the pair. While overindulgence is a common drawback to such exercises, the Whites care too much about song craft to fall into that trap. For instance, if played at quiet volumes, No Need to Be Downhearted is a pleasant dose of pop, full of lovely harmonies and catchy melodies. But turned up to a more rousing volume, the details of the album leap out of the speakers and it's a thick slab of rock that emerges, even on a soft folk pop song like "Shore Song". It's not just a difference of recording quiet or loud, it’s an issue of knowing how to assemble good songs.
That craft produces a range of sound, from "Misunderstanding"'s Damon Gough inflections to "Have You Ever Felt Like It's Too Late"'s jangly guitar pop sliding into soaring, atmospheric choruses. Nor are the hooks and pop immediacy stacked on the front end of the album. Late-album highlight "Cold War"'s piano pop might be the best song on the album in terms of pure pop sensibility. The ESP website cheekily encourages Burt Bacharach to pay attention, and while it's sarcastic swagger, they're not wrong, either. The driving piano and space-age bridge give the song a kind of indie airiness that is neither twee nor psych-pop breeze. And if it wasn't for the downtuned guitar instrumental outro tracked on at the end, it might even be the one song on the album that won out for consistency's sake.
Doves fans would be well-served to seek out this release, a comparison that is sealed in the trio of guitar-washed tracks that close out No Need to Be Downhearted. But, as said before, anyone who's felt like the British pop exports have been falling into a rut of sameness (witness Snow Patrol) should give the Electric Soft Parade a listen as well. Ultimately, make or break in the US doesn't matter -- this is a solid album regardless. Tom and Alex White prove to be consummate pop musicians on this release, carefully arranging an arresting collection of songs that carry you from track to track and hook to hook with skill. Contemplative pop and blissful rock in the same package, by the time the final strains of "No Need to Be Downhearted (Part 2)" return to the quiet, the Electric Soft Parade proves to have produced a feel-good, even happy album without relying on vapid cheer. Even when tackling failed relationships and maudlin emotion, ultimately the idea is to pull through and keep in mind that there's still the chance for something good on the other side. And, yes, fine, in these troubled times, that's as valuable as anything.