Sunday, April 27, 2014

Cut Copy: In Ghost Colours (2008)



I missed this at the time. Naturally I knew of the Australian collective Cut Copy but did not listen to a full album until I was assigned to review Zonoscope in 2011. That was a lovely Monday morning indeed -- Modular sent me a promo CD and I took it on my then-unusually long commute with me; the heat in my car wasn't working, but soon enough I couldn't even tell anymore. I was smitten with that album and, as I generally tried to, I took a listen to the band's prior work before I sent in my piece, but neither of their previous albums made nearly such a big impression on me. I've enjoyed In Ghost Colours off and on since then but my hunch was always that it was a dry run despite its reputation -- just to ensure I wasn't bullshitting, I've spent time lately also with Zonoscope and the bizarrely ignored Free Your Mind and yes, they've improved enormously since then.

Some of this is down to a question of mood -- the band's, that is, not ours. The two Cut Copy albums from our present decade are moodier, druggier, more tempered in even messages and longings that are probably jokes (no one says "free your mind" in 2013 and means it, right?), while In Ghost Colours is so blatantly sweet and cheery it could give you a toothache. One of the things I like about Cut Copy is their earnestness -- not only do they seem warm and approachable, in contrast to even good bands operating in a similar vein (like Hot Chip or WhoMadeWho) they do not seem particularly self-aware. Dan Whitford sings his heart out, and as composers and producers (here with James Murphy associate Tim Goldsworthy) they're refreshingly direct in both their laying bare of influences and their unguarded emotion, less psychodrama than all-embracing bliss.

That brings us to the other thing that appeals to me most about the group: with each chapter in their narrative, they have edged closer to dispensing with every outside notion of what band they're supposed to be, having been billed in their brief time with Interscope in the U.S. as a breezy hybrid of the dance club and the rock show. By Free Your Mind, the guitars are basically gone. Colours, though, captures them in a transitional moment. For long stretches, you almost can't even make any disco dreams of this. It's really quite a straightforward group of anthemic pop songs, sometimes resembling (of all things) Ian Broudie's Lightning Seeds thanks largely to Whitford's incessant good mood.

"Feel the Love" -- another readily adopted hippie buzzphrase -- feels as fresh as a jump out into mountain air, and while it's afraid to shed its rawk orientation, this is one of two cuts that suggests the way forward for the band and wouldn't sound terribly out of place on their subsequent albums. The roller-rink synthpop peaks with a vocoder hook on the bridge, but it's not so much an electronic detour as an homage to early '80s power pop like the Cars. "Hearts on Fire," one of the album's signature cuts, bears the most explicit resemblance to the writing and production ideas on Zonoscope but is less potent, and winds down into a rather weak chorus.

Candy-O didn't have anything like "Out There on the Ice," which hits an odd and intriguing dichotomy of Whitford and the band's psychedelic doo wop vocal arrangement and what amounts to a strong, classic house beat circa 1989 or so. The band can't get its head around how to make this work quite yet, and the result feels too deadpan -- it's fun but it never lifts off into unforced hedonistic joy, which if you know this band is what you expect. A lot of the most pleasing moments afterward are fleeting, like the keyboard breakdown on "So Haunted," pure pop with just a little touch of windswept techno flourish. The most they ever really cut loose for a full song is on the band's biggest hit thus far, "Lights & Music," the Cut Copy song I most clearly remember hearing around the time of its release. It's a great piece of fast-paced, synth-filled joy but it's still not quite dance music. Notice the way that, on the bridge, everything drops out except the guitar, as though it's '97 and we're listening to alternative rock radio again.

Most of In Ghost Colours settles into kind of a holding pattern with this stuff: happy, indistinct, straight rock with big peaks and some little stabs of keyboard, usually hitting a half-chorus followed by a dramatic dropout then big, bass-heavy explosive return. "Unforgettable Season" sets the pattern, strongly suggesting the Alarm or even Midnight Oil, and what's strange is it's not even really in Whitford's vocal range.

We keep harping on dance music because Cut Copy are great at making addictive, explosive and ecstatic dance-pop with massive beats and unforgettable melodies, like a much more domestically placid Depeche Mode, and eventually they would become one of the more fearless rock bands from their time in regard to wholly shedding the rock part. In Ghost Colours is an enjoyable record and might have worked best for me had I discovered it in its moment.

Now I keep wanting to hear the later records, and indeed, there are more hooks and better sustained ones in just the first few minutes of "Need You Now" than on most of this entire album, and the flair for drama has improved (that particular song sustains its tension for an incredibly long time without trying patience), the rampant sunny positivity seems more carefully earned, and not that it's hugely important but the lyrics are much stronger. The same for how "Free Your Mind" gurgles its way in two albums later. It's not that the group have just shed elements to become somebody else, they've honed their craft and found their ideal niche. The pure bliss on the bridge of "Corner of the Sky," that irresistible otherworldly melody on "Dark Corners & Mountain Tops," or the blissed-out red-light rampage of "Sun God" all have their origins here. Maybe the highest compliment for this breakthrough record is that it's hard to let it pass into quiet without replacing it on the speakers with one of the two sequels.

Zonoscope (2011)
Free Your Mind (2013)

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