Friday, May 30, 2008

The Long Blondes -- "Couples" (2008)

The Long Blondes -- “Couples” (Rough Trade)

The Long Blondes are an interesting proposition. They play precise post-punk influenced pop with incisive lyrics, made all the better when sung by the captivating Kate Jackson. Her clear vocalizing is sexy and smart, as she manages to make bittersweet and cutting observations with both a hint of hurt and the wisdom of a survivor.

There is a tension in the band’s sound that both attracts and repels me. As human as Kate Jackson is, the music has a certain chilly aspect to it that tantalizes. As anyone who’s loved Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” or other mechanistic pop knows, cold and hot make a great combination. But Jackson has just enough reserve to make many Long Blondes tunes a mix of cold and a bit warm. It’s not always the same effect.

I think this is why I liked the band’s debut, but could never get fully excited about it. On its sophomore effort, the band moves even further into the frost, with more pensive tunes, and some tracks which take clear inspiration from sources such as the discofied Blondie and 154-era Wire.

I feel pretty much the same tension this time around, but find this album a little more attractive. What this says about me, I don’t know. So The Long Blondes are now an oddity, as I think I respect the band more than I love it. But there is a lot to respect (or love).

The Blondie vibe gets going right away on the lead track “Century”, which starts with Jackson cooing ethereally like a certain Debbie Harry. The music is pulsing mid-tempo disco and the lyrics are more impressionistic than usual for the Blondes, which fits the airy nature of the tune. This vibe continues on the lightly funky “Guilt”, a great song about a woman with a boyfriend spurning an overly amorous suitor: “And now you’re telling me you want this to work/but don’t say I shouldn’t worry till the morning/‘cos I’m worrying now.”

Even more intriguing are the deeper forays into post-punk. The spartan “Nostalgia” has an overmodulated keyboard rhythm, augmented by a sad piano and light drums. Jackson carries the elegant melody as she details how the past is just a bitter curse: “I may never have a daughter/‘cos I’ve too much to tell her/and far too much to answer for.” Here, the chilly music and her warm voice are an unbeatable poignant combination.

On “Erin O’Connor”, the disco meets the post-punk, sounding like a peppier Portishead. Reenie Hollis’ bass drives the verses, with Screech Louder’s drums following in lockstep. On this track, the texture is what’s different. The hook is classic Long Blondes.

The centerpiece track is “Round the Hairpin”, where white noise, a gurgling bass tone, and dissonant guitar (a la Magazine or Wire) back Jackson, her voice just above a whisper, her articulation perfect and perfectly sexy. Louder’s beatkeeping is particularly creative on this song. The groove set down here is hypnotic and the band just lets the film noir atmosphere build as things simmer and the intensity burns hotter and hotter. Cool stuff.

The Blondes haven’t forgotten the pure pop for you people. With its chanted chorus and big bouncy beat, “Here Comes the Serious Bit” is an out of the box winner. And “The Couples” is sly and playful event though it’s about being lonely. This song is so riddled with good lyrics, I almost don’t know which one to quote. Let me try this one: “I used to come here to have good time/but I can feel like this at home.” The chorus is a killer, with a rising and falling melody, and Jackson rides it for all it’s worth.

Yep, this is a good one. But I find that breaking it down by tracks makes it seem a bit better than the way it flows. It’s like the album is one great cut away from making me a slobbering Long Blondes loving fool. I’m still a bit shy of that, but I’m going to stick around to see if that will happen next time around.

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