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Friendly Fires

"Hawaiian Air" / "Blue Cassette"

[XL; 2011]

By ; May 10, 2011 

Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

If you’ve ever had a conversation with a Jimmy Buffet fan, you’ve likely heard some version of this mantra: “it’s about the atmosphere, not the music.” And clearly, there are some cases where music is secondary to the party. At any rate, Friendly Fires strike me as the kind of band who might subscribe to such a principle. To get my point, listen no further than “Blue Cassette” and “Hawaiian Air,” the island-inspired lead tracks from Pala, the band’s sophomore record.

From a purely theoretical standpoint, it would seem impossible to gripe about either of these tracks. “Hawaiian Air” is intended to be the definitive theme song to your summer luau, driven by what sounds like the entire population of Kailua slapping their palms against an assortment of hand drums and bongos. “Blue Cassette” includes the same type of high energy percussion but uses lots of whirling electronics and loops to add accent. Cassette tapes are a part of the song’s narrative, obviously, so there’s a bunch of rewinding and fast forward effects scattered around. Scattered is the operative word there, because they do seem to be. Ed McFarlane unabashedly drapes his vocals over both tracks with one singular goal: be as catchy as humanly possible. The hooks are obvious, but even the verses are written like choruses, the harmony soaring like the exotic, rainbow-colored bird they’ve enlisted for their album’s art work. Its all very feel-good, very frilly, very “bartender, I’ll have another.”

Unfortunately, its also annoying on a wholesale level, like someone yanked the umbrella out of their fruity cocktail and plucked your ear drum with it.

Look: I know carefree and beachy when I hear it, and the vocals that run roughshod over both these songs – especially “Hawaiian Air” – are neither carefree nor beachy. They sound preposterous, especially when McFarlane is spouting off about “seeing the mountains through the fog/watching a film with a talking dog.” With lines like that, these songs belong more on the soundtrack to an Adam Sandler movie than they do on a serious party playlist. “Blue Cassette” is a little bit better, but that’s mostly because it makes so little sense and doesn’t go out of its way trying to be cute. All indications are that McFarlane is singing about trying to stop some cassette tape he’s unearthed from playing, but it doesn’t equate: his heart is on fire, he can’t stop the wheels from turning, and he hears someone’s voice. But honestly, this song is about absolutely nothing. And that doesn’t help matters: for a song so explicitly bubbly and fun-lovin’, why the bummed out lyrics? There’s no sense in it. The objective seems to have been, quite literally, to take a halfway catchy instrumental (no matter how hokey) and slap some random vocals over it because, hey, people will play this at barbeques where everyone is drunk and only paying negligible attention anyway.

Maybe there are times where the atmosphere makes the music. But it’s difficult to imagine how even the sunniest, sandiest day at the beach could turn these songs into something bearable.

“Hawaiian Air”: 2/10

“Blue Cassette”: 4/10

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