If All We Are took remarks on their self-titled debut album being all style and no substance then they set to work proving those critics wrong on their follow up, Sunny Hills. The Kwes-produced album had the Irish/Norwegian/Brazilian trio burrow into dark mines of textural post-punk and post-rock, looking for a cathartic release of anxiety and worry about the state of the world. Comparing the two albums next to each other, you could be forgiven for thinking it was an entirely different band on each release; Sunny Hills‘ sometimes suffocating ashy disposition seemed like a direct response to its predecessor’s smoothness and light, airy feel. Even the acoustic version of Sunny Hills has an undeniable weightiness to it, despite its stripped-down style.
Three years later and the band have returned with yet another different face; sunnier than anything on Sunny Hills, and more outwardly flashy than the flashes of excellence on All We Are. One glance at the cover of their new album Providence and you can probably imagine the sound the band hit on here: bright, summer holiday feels that exudes a little too much nonchalant coolness.
According to the press release: “As with previous albums [they] decorated their writing and recording space accordingly. This meant posters from the local travel agents, an old surfboard and whacking the heating up.” Like enticing posters to far-off destinations, the offerings here are all show and allure, with a generous smear of lawn flamingo tackiness. Their website even currently sports a pineapple cursor.
The up-side to this dedication of capturing this technicolour vision of joy and love is that the band sound like they have a more defined identity than ever. “Heart of Mine” toes the line between a poolside lounging feel and a glistening firework display, shuffling between the two from verse to chorus. “L is for Lose” brings forward the swagger of their debut with slinky guitar and bass and alluring falsetto vocals, but turns the heat dial up more than a few notches. Take more than a casual peek at the lyrics and the song’s sexuality is there to gaze upon (“So close your eyes and get into a rhythm, baby… And breathe with me / I’m ready to give in / Lay heavy on my skin”). Hooking you in with busy basslines, shimmering percussion, and affirmative statements, it’s easy to overlook the fact that opening track “Providence” is vacant of an actual chorus. They’re examples of a band working hard to get your attention, but not letting it seem like it’s all work and no play.
The album starts strongly with the above mentioned tracks, but even despite its efficient 33 minute runtime, Providence loses some steam come the B side. An empty and forgettable track like “Elegy”, or an overcooked interlude like “How You Get Me” (which comes complete with a fake-out, celebratory horns, and a choir of voices in tow) are easy to skate through in the grand scheme of things, but likely won’t be the first returning points for listeners. “When You Cry” aims for the breadth of a classic 80s ballad, and as nice an ode to friendship as it is, it doesn’t burn as brightly as it hopes to; if it were the flame of a bunsen burner, it would be the relatively harmless yellow flame you can brush your hand through instead of the intense searing blue light it wants to be.
There’s no denying the trio put on a dedicated show on Providence, but it’s easy to argue that producer Dave McCracken puts too heavy a coat of gloss over the whole thing, leaving a gaudy, saturated aftertaste on the album. Moments of sincerity like “Beauty in Loss” come off saccharine; the sexy summertime feel doesn’t play into messages of grief (“You know that sometimes / There’s beauty in loss / I’m so sorry”) and rubbing up against the aforementioned sexy come-on of “L is for Lose” makes it sound all the more insincere.
Even when everything is working, details and intricacies get lost in the mix. Sure, you might hear the scratchiness of the bass work, or the seamless vocal harmonies all fine, but the realism of it all comes into question after repeated spins of the album. Although drummer Richard O’Flynn has stated “Some of the songs are incredibly personal,” the real emotion feels like it’s hidden under a heavy coat of make-up to avoid any risk of imperfection showing.
This makes the fun tracks suffer too, namely “Not Your Man”; “Oh, you know / I want you body / And you think I’m sexy / Like a piña colada you’re not gonna waste me,” the band sings in unison, offering up perhaps the most unsexy pickup line you’ll hear all year. And yet the song exudes and drips with a sexiness – no doubt helped by the fact that its main riff is essentially Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ la Vida Loca” with a few notes missing. You’d be hard pressed to not want to move to the song’s tropical rhythms and carefree vibe, and the whole thing does feel like the band has their tongue in their cheeks, but that juxtaposition is jarring if you put it under any real scrutiny.
Perhaps the solution is in the zippy affirmations of penultimate track “Bad Advice”: “Just don’t think about it.” If you can manage that then Providence will reap some rewards, and at its best even feel like a small holiday.