Alt J

Dissecting alt-J

This Is All Yours, alt-j’s second album, has been on the airwaves for a couple weeks now leaving plenty of time for audiences around the world to question whether alt-j lived up to the hype.  I enjoyed the album, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether the album was as good as their first; something I usually contemplate this after the initial week or two of release. After extensive play-throughs of This Is All Yours and An Awesome Wave it’s time to dissect alt-j.

Their first album, An Awesome Wave, was one of the most original and popular albums of 2012.  The shrill vocals of singer Joe Newman riding over the backdrop of syncopated beats and innovative instrumentation (the tape roll on the guitar fret in the Taro solo) made for one unique album.  If you ask most people for an alt-j song the common answer would be Breezeblocks; their hit single that reached 3rd in the Hottest 100.  Their other singles: Tessellate, Something Good and Matilda just scrape the surface of how diverse the album is.  If you delve deeper into the tracks you’d find many hidden gems that, for me, are better than the singles.  The a cappella Interlude 1 is often belted along to when it comes on in the car and the electronic beats of Dissolve Me make for a great dance tune.

Bloodflood and Taro should be the most recognised singles of An Awesome Wave.

The ending tracks of this album would have to be two of the best closers on any LP.  It’s a bold statement, I know, but think about it.  How many albums do you listen to until completion with blistering anticipation for the closing songs?  Bloodflood and Taro should be the most recognised singles of An Awesome Wave.  With the piano melody as its base, Bloodflood builds with an almost childlike twang of the guitar and Newman’s unique vocals swaying with grace.  Let’s not forget the percussion in the song either, with drummer Thom Green changing between deep bass drum drones for the intro moving to almost bongo sounds by the end of the song.  When the final chorus arrives the sound crescendos as the harmonies interchange with the melodies of the guitars, the drum rhythms rolling quickly in the background; perfection.

Taro is one of those tracks that I can listen to time and time again and find something new and interesting hidden deep within. Originally it was the solo that hooked me in; the hypnotic Bollywood/Indian melody was enchanting the first time Taro breached my mind and it still is today. The layering of the song is also what makes it a classic; the vocal harmonies bounce from one another as the kick drum rhythms add a rolling effect to the music.  These two songs would be great anywhere on the album, but they act as an excellent way to end it.

Yes it’s selfish, yes it’s a bit rough, but I didn’t mind Sainsbury leaving.

With multi-instrumentalist Gwil Sainsbury leaving in early 2014 many people were worried whether alt-j would produce an album of the same quality, and I didn’t really want alt-j to make another album.  An Awesome Wave stood alone as a great album; a testament to true indie rock, and I would have been okay if the entire band broke up and never made another album.  Yes it’s selfish, yes it’s a bit rough, but I didn’t mind Sainsbury leaving. Maybe this was the first step to my dream coming true, but despite my wishes alt-j announced their second album, This Is All Yours.

Their slew of singles received positive acclaim from their fans, despite having sampled Miley Cyrus in their first release Hunger of the Pine.  I see it as alt-j displaying their sense of humour by adding the tabloid pop star into their new single, I admire it. Word to the wise – don’t go looking for the song which the sample is originally from, big mistake!

My opinions have changed drastically in the weeks since the album’s release.  I am still listening to Nara, Warm Foothills and The Ballad of John Hurt with no signs of slowing down, but the more I listen to the album, the more respect I have for the compilation of tracks.  The first three tracks of This Is All Yours are, for me, exactly what the ending songs of their previous album were: perfect placement of songs in a logical order that builds cohesion.  Intro is still as hypnotic as ever but it’s how Arrival in Nara transitions directly into Nara that makes the opening truly stand out.  The two songs are completely different in tone, Arrival in Nara being a slower and simpler tune acts as an introduction to the layered complexities in Nara – they could almost be one song together.

I know what it is – it’s that fucking piano introduction…

Nara is the new Bloodflood for me.  Even though Bloodflood Pt II is featured on their second album I just can’t come around to it.  I’ve been told to give it a second listen, but after the tenth or twelfth time I’m just going to say I don’t like it.  I know what it is – it’s that fucking piano introduction with the fuzzy electronic beat after it.  It would be manageable without that little hook because the chorus is a killer, but that damn intro.

So the real question here is not so much whether one album is better than the other, but whether alt-j have grown and developed as a band.  Usually when I think about a band’s growth it’s because they are a different band entirely from when they began –Arctic Monkeys I’m looking at you- but this isn’t the case for alt-j.  The band have been consistent with their sound in the two albums, though the second album tends to have a softer side than the first.  You can listen to the second album and recognise the trademark stylistics that are part and parcel of any alt-j song: the intricate syncopation in the drums, the odd vocal rhythms and harmonies and the layering of different sounds.  Alt-j may have grown in terms of composition, but as a band they are very much the same, which is a good thing for those fans who don’t like change.

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