A gutsy, experimental record which dares to be different, and proves that the Blondes are one of the more exciting groups around at the moment -- as close to synth-pop perfection as you're likely to get.
Sometimes the best line of defense is to attack. Maybe that was the reason behind the recent photo shoot for the British music paper NME, which had the Long Blondes replicate the cover of Blondie's Parallel Lines. More likely, however, the Sheffield quintet are just quietly resigned to the fact that they will forever be compared to New York City's disco-punk pioneers. And if there was ever any doubt whether they would rise to that challenge -- which in all honesty there never really was -- the band have once and for all proven themselves worthy successors with their sophomore release, Couples, an album overflowing with quality post-punk-inspired synth-pop danceability and art-rock angular beats. Yes, that's right, this is their very own Parallel Lines for the noughties -- a gutsy, experimental record which dares to be different, while making you want to shake your tail feather with ultra-cool abandon.
Couples finds sassy, "glamour punk" lead singer Kate Jackson, along with Cox, keyboard player Emma Chaplin, bassist Reenie Hollis, and the aptly named Screech Louder (née Mark Turvey) on drums, replacing the stripped-down indie guitar pop that swathed their poignant, kitchen-sink vignettes on 2006's debut full-length, Someone to Drive You Home, with percussive widescreen arrangements driven by impressive keys and funky bass lines, while continuing to deal in shady femme fatales with dubious morals, desperate ladies home alone, and dysfunctional relationships. DJ Erol Alkan, remix maven behind groups like the Klaxons and Daft Punk among others, brings what Dorian Cox, the Blondes' guitarist and main songwriter, describes as "a non-musical approach to the production".
"Century", the album's lead-off track and first single, gets the diso ball revolving early. It serves as both a perfect scene setter for what's to come and a statement of musical intent. Jackson comes on like a feral disco queen, belting out lyrical shards of glass as repetetive synth-pop swirls and beats recall Human League at their peak, demonstrating that Blondie are not the only touchstone on Long Blonde island. After this glorious opening salvo, however, things get a bit wobbly for a few numbers. Jackson's gasping falsetto is a sexy revelation on the following track, "Guilt", proving that she has a larger vocal range than hitherto revealed, but the chunky rhythm section soon betrays a hollow, electro-pop bubblegum centre that slowly outstays its welcome. This glossy sheen is carried over on to both "The Couples" and "I Liked the Boys", which suffer from some cluttered, messy production, especially on the latter number, before the album truly hits its stride with the electronica shimmy-and-shake of track five, "Here Comes the Serious Bit" -- damn right it does.
What follows over the remaining five tracks is as close to synth-pop perfection as you're likely to get. There's the darkly atmospheric '50s noir stylings of "Round the Hairpin", replete with unnerving guitar drone and backwards singing to heighten the dramatic tension, and "Too Clever by Half", a hushed and drum-brushed torch song with an electro-backbeat that travels to the outer limits of exotica for its influences.The album closer "I'm Going to Hell" is a '60s girl group, pop-punkette explosion with a controlled pandemonium payoff that makes you want to be kind to yourself and rewind.
Some people might have preferred the Blondes to return with another collection of guitar-propelled indie pop. However, Couples clearly demonstrates that, never mind the occasional misstep and overt Blondie influences, this is still one adventurous band who won't be placed in a box anytime soon. Or, as Kate Jackson has it: "As with all relationships, we have to look to the past, serenade it, and then break away from it in order to realize the future".
Photo: Rick Pushinsky