[Memphis Industries, 2013]
Ambition is a sticky subject when it comes to indie rock. Artistic ambition is totally fine. That’s what drove Radiohead to embrace the electronics that have defined their best work, and what inspired Kevin Shields to carve out a new language for the electric guitar. Commercial ambition isn’t greeted so friendly. When a band makes a few tweaks perceived to make them more palatable to a wider audience, the old fans cry foul: they’re just in it for the money, the early stuff was better. But what happens when artistic and commercial ambition dovetail, when a band makes an aesthetic shift that both sharpens their art and simultaneously makes them more accessible? History is usually kind to those artists, but that doesn’t shield them from the present. Today, nobody but the crustiest warehouse squatter would rip The Clash for softening their edges and embracing a wider sonic palette on London Calling, but there was still push back from the fans in 1979.
When Dutch Uncles’ released Out of Touch in the Wild in the UK earlier this year (released in the US by Memphis Industries on 4/2), the critical consensus was that this was their big commercial move. The young English band who had previously released two albums of spiky math rock were making a play for the UK charts. The Guardian’s review found that the band’s new approach keeps “one eye on the pop mainstream,” and suggests the band is chasing “the top 10 success of fellow brainy Manchester electro types Everything Everything.” The Quietus arrived at the same conclusion, singling out a trio of “nauseating” and “too sweet” songs as evidence that the band is looking for mainstream exposure. Drowned In Sound didn’t exactly point a finger, but the review ends with the following prediction: “It’s fair to say that we’ll be hearing a fair bit of this album throughout 2013, whether on the radio or soundtracking a particularly tricky moment on The Great British Bake Off.”
Maybe they’re right. Maybe it doesn’t even matter; all three of the quoted reviews are largely positive anyway. It just strikes me as the wrong way to approach an album that finds a promising band dismantling their sound and putting the pieces back together in a much more exciting way. The band that recorded 2011’s Cadenza was very much a traditional rock band, combining guitar, bass, drums, and keyboard into a familiar form of polyrhythmic math rock. They did it with admirable dexterity, but the result still sounded like a more polite descendant of Gang of Four, or maybe Foals’ meeker, nerdier cousin. Out of Touch in the Wild is just as knotty as its predecessor, but the band has reconfigured their sound into kitchen sink art-pop that uses an army of instrumental flourishes. It’s the boldest album the group has made yet, and it just so happens that it’s their most accessible one, too.
The band establishes the rules in the first two tracks. Percussion-less intro “Pondage” is spare and somber, with lock-step guitars fighting for space with piano, synth, and strings. It builds into “Bellio,” the closest the album comes to outright synth-pop, a comparison that isn’t hurt by frontman Duncan Wallis’ uncanny vocal resemblance to Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor. Other tracks like “Flexxin” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Hot Chip record, but that isn’t the band’s dominant mode. They know when to pull back, and they know the value of variety. “Phaedra” uses soundtrack strings and negative space to crank up the drama, and “Godboy” opens with a drowsy synth beneath a cloud of lean guitar notes.
This is definitely the brightest album the band has made, with details that add levity to the band’s dense arrangements. Lead single “Fester” is built around xylophone and marimba lines that never would have been so heavily featured on the first two albums, and it’s hard to imagine what “Zug Zwang” and “Flexxin” would sound like without prominent string sections. They use the new percussive and string elements in a way that suggests the band knows their Reich and Riley, underscoring their songs with a phased effect that plays beautifully off their killer rhythm section. It’s a smart approach to pop that recalls classic art rock acts like Talking Heads, Scritti Politti, and Peter Gabriel, all of whom were making adventurous music during their commercial peaks.
Dutch Uncles haven’t delivered a London Calling, but they have made a turning point in what will hopefully be a long and rewarding career. Give this album a few years to breathe, and it’s more likely to sound like an artistic watershed than a commercial play.