I suppose it takes a certain kind of musician to turn their back on critical acclaim, much of which has applauded you for bringing DFA-style grooves to the outskirts of the M25, and decide instead to make an album that’s intended to sound like the work of a polished 1990s boy band.
Well, Friendly Fires have done just that, making their second album, Pala, a sometimes frustrating listen for older fans of the band—though it isn’t likely to hurt the St. Albans trio’s commercial prospects.
The moment you truly realise their transformation does not come on the not-too-young-to-be-a-raver manifesto of “Live Those Days Tonight”, which opens the album with something of a red herring. In fact, the first half of the album maintains a summery bounce which wouldn’t sound out of place on the European festival circuit. In the case of “Hawaiian Air”, the band’s journey is more literal, and covers more miles. Frontman Ed MacFarlane considers “skipping the meal for a G&T” (evidently he’s not a fan of in-flight dining) and indulges in a “film with a talking dog”. In a rare break of assuredness, he ponders what would happen if the turbulence resulted in a fall, only for a “Paris”-esque chorus to lift them airborne, momentarily. When they land at their Pacific destination and “breathe in the new air” over a cheesy guitar line and whistling synths, you half expect them to be draped in floral lei.
The frantic summer getaway abates slightly on “Hurting”, but probably only so the trio can sip at cocktails whilst reminiscing about lost love. The harmony in the chorus is pure UB40; the rest of the song is spookily similar to Hercules And Love Affair’s “Leonora”. Given that Messrs. MacFarlane, Savidge and Gibson would have been holed up in a suburban garage at pretty much the same time as H&LA were penning their Blue Songs deep cut, we can safely assume the similarity is coincidental, and not evidence of Hertfordshire-to-NYC industrial espionage. Nevertheless, both songs capture perfectly the post-relationship blues—even if “Hurting” gets there via Midlands reggae, circa 1983.
But the real pivot point on Pala occurs one track later, on the title track, on which the band evokes repressed memories of ‘N Sync and Another Level I thought I had buried for good. The tender and deliberate pace of the track, with MacFarlane’s whispery vocals searching for the gaps between seductive peals of keyboard, gives it a lugubrious sheen that brings to mind leather jackets, stylised photo shoots on skyscraper roofs, and school disco slow dances.
From that moment on, Pala dives headfirst into this very particular aesthetic. “Show Me Lights” features clattering percussion set against a digitised kick drum, and a vocal melody that would float straight onto Top Of The Pops. The penultimate song, “Chimes”, pits lightly filtered vocals against a four-to-the-floor military beat that appears to have drifted in from Gala’s “Freed From Desire”.
If it sounds like I’m complaining, you’re mistaken. I’ve spent the best part of a decade moaning about the state of manufactured pop music, making unfavourable comparisons with its 1990s equivalent, which I basically grew up on. And now here comes Friendly Fires, ready to take me back to the halcyon days when Andi Peters still anchored CBBC, and Mark Morrison was released from prison specifically to record his masterpiece, “Return Of The Mack”. If these thoughts populate your daydreams then, like me, you will be struck by intense nostalgia when listening to Pala. I tend to think the lauded songwriters of a given decade take inspiration from the music of three decades ago: Britpop was in thrall to the nascent pop of the 1960s; the post-punk revival of the noughties was informed by the original post-punk of the 1970s; and more recently, there has been a fascination with the electro-pop of the 1980s. If this is the case, Friendly Fires have jumped the gun, by at least nine years, because Pala’s second half reads like my 1990s pop fantasy.
Consequently, Pala is an album with an identity crisis. Half of it wants to ride the warm jets; the other half wants to wallow in slick balladry. Either way, escapism is the name of the game, a desire summed up on the album’s concluding song, “Helpless”, which is the only place where the two conflicting sides of the album coalesce. With its vocals drenched in feathery reverb, lurching bass, sound effects cribbed from a holiday handycam video, and a knowingly leisurely beat, “Helpless” achieves what the rest of the album only hints at: the coming together of two reasonably disparate musical eras, each adhering to the other thanks to lashings of sampled birdsong and a synthesiser that’s crawled out of a Telly Savalas travelogue.
We like to talk about albums that feel like albums; albums which carry on the lineage of Important Musical Statements; albums where the sequencing of tracks is the source of internecine squabbles. Friendly Fires don’t seem to be very interested in all that guff. Perhaps unintentionally, they’ve served up two very different cuisines on one plate, and I reckon my summer holidays (escapism, via both travel and self-pity) will thank them kindly for doing so.
Grab and go: “Hurting”, “Pala”, “Helpless”.
P.S. If you didn’t already, I encourage you to follow all the links to YouTube videos, to live out your own “1990s pop fantasy”.