Album Review: Big Balloon (2017) by Dutch Uncles

Big Balloon is an odd album – but odd is what I’ve come expect from Dutch Uncles at this stage. From their self-titled debut to 2015’s O Shudder, the band have done a consistent job of putting out off-kilter yet great albums. (Their last two albums in particular have been really fantastic.)

Their fifth album though feels odd in a different way. In the same way that Wild Beasts’ seemed to aim for a more accessible sound with last year’s Boy King, it feels like Big Balloon is almost Dutch Uncles’ attempt at commercial popularity. The songs are generally more straightforward, there are more soaring guitar riffs (I’m not saying this is a bad thing) and just about every track feels like a single.

Yet as I say this, the band are still cryptically weird in the same way they were on their old albums. The title track ‘Big Balloon’ (which is great) in particular feels like a mash between these two styles. It’s got a great chorus that you want to sing along to (‘Make me swoon like a big balloon’) and the aforementioned awesome guitar riffs, but at the same time the lyrics on the verses are about as bizarre and indecipherable as anything the band has put out. ‘Freeze the ghost, be happy as fat’? ‘Leave it all for potato lands’? What?

I don’t think this is the album that will truly give Dutch Uncles the breakthrough they deserve – it’s too weird even if they’re trying to be more normal – but it’s a solid album from nonetheless. There are only a couple of weak songs on here and a lot of good ones. ‘Baskin’’ has a great nervous energy to it, ‘Oh Yeah’ is delightfully weird and super catchy and ‘Streetlight’, with its wailing vocals and buzzing synths, might be one of the best songs the band has ever put out. The two closing tracks on the album, ‘Sink’ and ‘Overton’, are also highlights for me. They definitely have an ambitious feel to them, showing the band break from the poppy feel that dominates most of the album.

Another great thing about Big Balloon is that there’s a lot of variety on it. ‘Same Plane Dream’ and ‘Achameleon’, both great tracks, in particular do a great job of representing the two different ends of the album’s musical spectrum; ‘Same Plain Dream’ being one of wildest songs Dutch Uncles have produced (vocal-wise at least) and ‘Achameleon’ one of the most restrained, being a touching, string-laden ballad.

The weakest song on the album is easily ‘Combo Box’ which… I don’t know how describe it. It’s definitely the oddest song on the album – lyrically at least – and it doesn’t really work much at all for me. The song’s focus on food metaphors just gave me the sense that the band were trying to be weird for the sake of it. Really, the best songs on the album, like ‘Big Balloon’ are the ones where the band get weird but at the same time feel emotionally anchored.

Big Balloon is another great outing from Dutch Uncles, though I’d say it doesn’t quite reach the same heights of Out of Touch in the Wild and O Shudder. All the songs here are solid fun, but there’s nothing quite as good as say, ‘Fester’ or ‘Be Right Back’ from those releases. Though if you’re looking for a fun pop/rock album with some definite Kate Bush/Talking Heads influence to it, you can’t go wrong with this album. There’s a lot to enjoy here.

Essential Songs: ‘Big Balloon’, ‘Streetlight’, ‘Sink’.

Book Review: The Stolen Child (2017) by Lisa Carey

Like a lot of the books I read these days, I went into The Stolen Child pretty much blind. I’ll admit that I was wooed by the colourful bee-coated cover, which seemed to suggest a book a little bit on the fantastical side. When I opened it up and found out it was about two sisters living in Ireland in the 1950s, I grew a little concerned… I began to worry that I’d picked up some super-dry historical novel rather than a fun and fantastical one.

After reading the book, it’s actually somewhere between the two. The Stolen Child mashes together two different ideas/tones that don’t seem like they would fit together – historical and fantasy – and makes them work.

St. Brigid’s Island is a remote settlement off the coast of Ireland, being home to a small community. There’s no electricity there, no harbour – making it incredibly hard for boats to visit – and no real form of communication with the outside world. One day an American woman named Brigid comes to the island with the intention of living there, much to the suspicion of the island’s inhabitants. They are hesitant to take her in, the wary and lonely Emer especially. It soon becomes clear that she has come to the island to find a deep and magical secret kept hidden by its residents…

The Stolen Child is a slow novel, but it puts a lot of time into building up its characters. It always puts its characters before its magical elements, which is something I really appreciate… In fact, it doesn’t even bother to introduce the more fantastical elements of its story until the main characters are all fully formed. What I’m trying to get at is, basically, with most fantasy novels it feels like it’s the gimmick or the fantastical premise that comes first. With The Stolen Child it definitely feels like Carey came up with the characters first.

And there are a lot of strong characters here, Brigid and Emer in particular; the whole novel hinges on their relationship. Carey does a wonderful job of developing their relationship across the novel – with them flip flopping between friends and enemies a couple of times – always keeping it realistic. For example, when they fall out you can understand the argument from both sides and empathise with both of the characters. When conflict comes up in the novel, it’s rarely because of a clear villainous figure, it’s normally because of generally good people having different views.

I don’t want to spoil how the novel develops, but Carey does take things in a surprising direction that, at the same time, feels true to the characters she’s created. In terms of complaints with this novel, there were only a few things I didn’t like. At times it moves at a snail’s pace, being almost bloated with flashbacks, which can get a little tedious. The beginning in particular is a bit too slow. Secondly, there are a few characters I wish Carey had made a bit more three-dimensional. Though there are some incredibly well developed female characters in The Stolen Child, there aren’t really any male characters who gain much more of a personality than being a ‘drunk and abusive husband’.

This is a historical novel primarily and a fantastical one secondarily. And that’s not a bad thing. Though it does get slightly dull in a couple of places, The Stolen Child has a lot going for it and is definitely worth your time.

Album Review: The Pace of Passing (2017) by Toothless

The Pace of Passing is the first album from Toothless, a project led by Bombay Bicycle Club bassist Ed Nash. And to be honest, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. With so many of Bombay Bicycle Club’s songs having killer basslines – ‘Always Like This’ is the most obvious example – it was kind of easy to have high hopes for an album put together by the band’s bassist. And while Toothless’s debut isn’t awful, some elements of it definitely work significantly better than others.

Let’s start off with The Pace of Passing’s biggest weakness: Ed Nash’s vocals. He really can’t sing that well at all. His voice is about as bland as they get, having no force or emotion to it. There are plenty of frontmen out there who can’t sing very well, but manage to get away with it by putting enough passion into their voice or by having a unique quality. Nash’s vocals just sound kind of whinny at times, and it never really feels like he cares much about what he’s singing about. Whether it’s a romantic song like ‘Palm’s Backside’ or a more sinister one like ‘You Thought I Was Your Friend’, Nash’s vocals just aren’t good enough to get across the feelings you can tell he’s trying to.

And this kind of brings me to the album’s other big weakness, the lyrics. Most of the time they’re okay – never really passing beyond serviceable – but sometimes they make me want to full-on cringe. The chorus of ‘Palm’s Backside’ is particularly bad. And even when the lyrics aren’t awful, Nash’s delivery seems to drag them down. A good example of this is at the beginning of ‘Palm’s Backside’ (back to this song again); the way Nash draws out the opening lines just comes across as forced and slightly embarrassing.

But while these two elements of the album are almost consistently meh, the instrumentation on some of these tracks manages to save them a little bit. The opener ‘Charon’ has a beautiful mood to it, with the string instruments featured really helping it feel grand. The album closer ‘Terra’ similarly has a great mood, with the instrumentation reflecting the subject of the song well. Almost all of the songs on the album deal with mythology as a subject matter – as shown by song titles like ‘Sisyphus’ – and the instruments often sound fittingly grand because of this.

Another good move than Nash made on this album was making use of guest vocalists. While almost all of them are underused, Wild Beasts’ Tom Fleming especially, they often manage to provide a certain gravitas that the lead singer can’t muster. ‘The Sirens’ works mainly because of the guest vocals from The Staves – easily being one of the best tracks on the album. There are a lot of times on The Pace of Passing that Toothless try to go for a catchy almost poppy feel, and it only really works on this song.

‘The Sun’s Midlife Crisis’ is another song that I have to give props to. Though it has a few weak lyrics in it, the song has a genuinely interesting focus, being about exactly what its title suggests it is. Like a lot of the songs on the album it has a mythological vibe, almost feeling like a fable. Not every element of the song works, but it’s got a certain uniqueness to it that I felt was worth highlighting.

Overall though, the album’s glimmers of goodness don’t really save it from its weaker aspects. Sadly it’s not one of those mixed albums that’s made up of some great songs and some bad ones… More it’s one of those mixed albums that’s made of good elements and bad elements that feature in every track. While some songs are definitely better than others, my resounding verdict on The Pace of Passing is meh.

Essential Songs: ‘Charon’, ‘The Sun’s Midlife Crisis’, ‘The Sirens’.

Book Review: The Hanging Tree (2016) by Ben Aaronovitch

Man, isn’t the Peter Grant series great? The Hanging Tree is the sixth book in the series (meaning that you have to get through five other books before you can read it) and potentially the best one. Featuring several books’ worth of pay-off, if you’re a fan of Peter Grant then you should definitely give it a read.

The book focuses on the investigation of a young girl’s death, who is believed to have taken some questionable pills at a party. As the case picks up in becomes clear that there are some magical elements involved it… causing Peter Grant to get involved. He soon discovers that this seemingly small incident is tied to an even bigger case, relating to a practitioner/criminal he’s been chasing for a long time: The Faceless Man.

The story picks up pretty much where the fourth book Broken Homes left off (the fifth one, Foxglove Summer, having taken a bit of a breather from the series’ overall story) with Grant slowly closing in on London’s most dangerous practitioner. I can’t talk too much about where the story picks up (in case there are any readers who haven’t read any of the books in the series yet), but trust me when I say that it does a great job of building on the world that Ben Aaronovitch has built. A lot of old characters return, being drawn back into the story, and a few great new ones are introduced.

Probably the main reason why The Hanging Tree works so well is that it acts as a major turning point for the novel. Like I said, it features several books’ worth of pay-off – feeling like a reward for reading some of the series’ lesser books (mainly Broken Homes). As the sort of person who normally reads standalone novels, I have to admit that there’s nothing quite like a series book like this one that really delivers on everything you hoped it would.

And luckily The Hanging Tree also features Aaronovitch’s usual great writing. It’s not the sort of writing that’s beautiful – there aren’t many great bits of imagery or flowery writing – but the kind that inhibits its protagonist’s voice incredibly well. Heck, all of the characters’ voices. By this stage in the series all of the characters feel well-rounded enough that it’s just fun to watch them bounce off each other (Sahra Guuleed the ‘Muslim ninja’ is a particular highlight). Basically, the writing style is consistent with the books that came before it and that’s a very good thing!

If you love the other books in the series, then you’re guaranteed to love this one. Aaronovitch doesn’t skimp out on giving fans what they want, making for a really rewarding read. And if you haven’t read any Peter Grant books a read before, then, well, give Rivers of London a go! Even if urban fantasy isn’t your sort of thing, you’re sure to find something to enjoy in it.