By Connor_Hayes | firstname.lastname@example.org
When New Zealand natives The Naked and Famous dropped their debut album, “Passive Me, Aggressive You,” in 2011, the underground music world was a vibrant environment. It was a banner year for synthpop, with releases by the likes of Washed Out, Twin Sister, Class Actress and Future Islands.
A revolutionizing group of artists were slowly changing the course that future electronica would follow. However, one album stood out among this cadre: “Passive Me, Aggressive You.”
It could have been the unorthodox composition, the angelic vocals of frontwoman Alisa Xayalith, or the group’s collective youthful sound, but the effects were immediate. Tracks like “Young Blood” and “Punching in a Dream” became new anthems for the Millennials, reached TV spots and movie soundtracks, and spun the music world on it’s head.
But Alisa, Thom Powers and the rest of the gang didn’t stop there. They embarked on one of the most arduous touring bouts of recent history, clocking in 200 shows in the next two years.
All of a sudden, all was silent. Multitudes of fans wondered where the group would go after such a commercially successful start.
Just when it seemed the group had over-played their starting lineup of tunes, The Naked and Famous released a new single, entitled “Hearts Like Ours,” and hinted at a sophomore release. Now, they’ve unveiled their newest effort, “In Rolling Waves,” a hefty LP weighing in at 12 tracks.
The album opener, “A Stillness,” is immediately striking: a rhythm composed of a mix of break beats and acoustic guitar gives way to throbbing synths. Lead vocalist Alisa whispers the lyrics, truncated by choruses of “Still, still, be still,” at first softly, but gradually grows in volume, till she is shouting emphatically. With some nice layering, the experimental rhythm turns into something not unlike a dance number, before culminating in a fantastically orchestrated synth symphony. The track then fizzles out (literally) into static for a few, brief seconds, before ending abruptly.
Although “Hearts Like Ours” and “A Waltz” follow in a similar vein, being the Naked and Famous, there are always a couple of monumental musical pillars that hold the album together. Without a doubt, one of these is the title track, “Rolling Waves.” An incredible composition, it opens to a demo-grade drum riff, not altered by electronics, a rarity for the group. It’s a pleasant addition all the same, and adds an organic feel to the otherwise immaculately produced track. Shifting and ebbing, much like it’s namesake, “Rolling Waves” flows wonderfully, the chorus like an amorphic, yet expertly layered, electronic wall of sound. The track peaks with all these elements working in unison with a simple, nucleic piano melody.
For all the gusto of the first four tracks, however, the mood of the album changes drastically starting with “The Mess.” What seemed like an adventure in blissful and extremely well-crafted soundscapes, turns into an extended metaphor on the emotional stages experienced by both parties after a relationship ends. “The Mess” puts the listener in the middle of a dialog of a failing relationship, while “Grow Old” is a lullaby-esque homage to the feelings of stasis one experiences after someone romantically close has completely exited another’s life (“We will never be the same,” as the lyrics reflect). “I Kill Giants,” meanwhile, features pulsating synth punctuated by sample vocals and a healthy dose of nostalgia: “Nothing but ashes in the old fireplace, with all of the memories he has erased.”
It’s clear the intent of the more somber side of the album, but this formula hits a few snags. Golden Girl,” a track placed between “Grow Old” and “I Kill Giants,” seems cheerier than it’s neighbors, and even the implied theme of longing for past affection from an ex seems odd and bipolar when followed by “I Kill Giants.”
Yet, the last three tracks of “In Rolling Waves” make up in some part for the indiscrepancies, through sheer force of emotion and thematic material. “We Are Leaving’s” message is as terminal as it sounds: it revolves around the trauma of living after heartbreak. Trauma is an incredibly appropriate word, considering the lyrics, “and as far as I can tell, it seems that you’re doing well.” To Move With Purpose offers another view, or rather phase, of post-relationship sorrow, by focusing on emotional paranoia, and relearning to trust one’s feelings in others, while Alisa and Thom’s duet is breathtaking, the track slowly crescendos, transforming from minimalist synthpop, to even tempo EDM.
If the melancholia of all the tracks before this point seemed overbearing, their purpose is revealed by making the inevitable reconciliation track, “A Small Reunion,” a just dessert. This number truly glows: the slow, building tempo, soulful strings, and sudden crescendo near the halfway mark all give this song a feeling of emotional gravitas, similar to watching a beautiful wedding in slow motion.
While it has a few structural flaws, “In Rolling Waves” keeps itself distinct from The Naked and Famous past work by simply channeling different, yet equally provocative, emotions: if “Passive Me, Aggressive You” was about self-actualization and youth, then “In Rolling Waves” is about introspection and growing up. In this light, it is a natural followup to the debut.
Listen to “Hearts Like Ours” here:
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