1) “Hello, my name is. . . .”
2) “This is my album. . . .” ,
3) Dance around for attention.
London Grammar, however, simply walked through the door, with the assured grace and poise of a smouldering runway model, handed their audience a flawless debut album and a business card, and whispered seductively “. . .call me”. After we’d collected our collective jaws off the floor, a frenzied explosion of Googling, blogging, and YouTubing ensued.
Now, barely two months after the release of their debut album, If You Wait, London Grammar are being hailed as “the next big thing”, and a guaranteed win for the U.K.’s Mercury Music Prize, inviting comparisons with the likes of The xx, Florence and the Machine, and even Annie Lennox. While the trio of Dot Major, Hannah Reid, and Dan Rothman that make up London Grammar do bear a passing sonic resemblance to these well established acts, it’s also glaringly obvious that they have complete mastery over their own style and sound. To see such a professional and self-assured debut album, is a rare treat.
‘Hey Now’ starts by easing listeners into the trio’s signature just-woke-up-on-Sunday-morning pensive mood. The song serves as a restrained introduction to the album, a clear indicator that London Grammar have wholeheartedly adopted a Dieter Rams-ian policy of less-is-more.
‘Wasting My Young Years’ is heartbreaking and brutally honest. The music doesn’t let the depression get too bitter, though, and lends a sense of hopefulness to the mix. The track strides confidently towards a climax, and yet knows when to pull back for maximum effect. The weave between Reid’s vocals and the instrumentation is especially impressive on this track. All elements of this song, from the vocals, to the instrumentation, to the driving (yet slightly muted) beat, are perfectly balanced and interwoven. This track is a testament to pitch perfect musical balance. You can really see that a lot of thought and work went into this album. It is a perfect showcase of meticulous precision and restraint.
Of all the tracks on this album, ‘Sights’, sounds the most like an escapee from a Florence Welch album. ‘Sights’ seems more like a bridge between ‘Wasting My Young Years’ and ‘Strong’ (in fact, it shares much of the same tone and feeling as ‘Strong’). However, it is far from being just some filler track. It sweeps the listener along as it rises and swells to a glorious climax, which feels a little like seeing a stray ray of sunshine on a grey, winter morning. It has a searching feel to it (even more so that the other tracks on this album), and it is at the same time hopeful and uplifting, and also questing and questioning. This is easily one of my favourite tracks on the album.
‘Strong’ pulls the audience into what can best be described as a “wide, open musical field”. It feels as if Grammar have just led us through a musical corridor of heartbreak and muted sadness, and through a door between introspective melancholy, and wide eyes-to-the-skies hopefulness.
‘Nightcall’ might just be the best cover that any band has recorded . . . ever. It is another of my favourite tracks on the album. Originally a single by French electro-house artist Kavinsky (with vocals courtesy of Brazilian band CSS’s lead singer Lovefoxxx), the original track was used to great effect in the title sequence for Nicolas Winding Refn’s film, Drive (an amazing movie that I highly recommend watching). London Grammar have really taken this song and made it their own. Gone is the glossy, slightly robotic feel of the original, replaced by Grammar’s soulful, humanistic melancholy. ‘Nightcall’ is most definitely the high point of the album. Around the two-and-a-half minute mark the song all but stops, and many first-time listeners (myself included) might mistake this for the end of the track, only to be greeted by Reid’s haunting, almost breathless voice on the other side of this brief respite. A few seconds later, you’re probably going to be floored by the climax of the track, wondering (rightly so) if it would be possible to build a time machine, travel back to 2011, and shove this album into Winding Refn’s hands.
Despite going from strength to strength in its first half, the album is far from over. While many well-established artists choose to shove their somewhat lesser tracks towards the end of the album, London Grammar blithely ignores that trend, sauntering (or rather, gliding ethereally) towards its next big thing: ‘Metal & Dust’. On this track, Reid’s vocals are set to a smooth (yet driving) trip-hop beat. This grounds her brittle, ethereal voice a bit, turning this track from an airy-fairy, barely-there melancholic reflection, to a poignant, and emotive ballad.
‘Flickers’ actually brings something new to the London Grammar sound, introducing a new take on the backing-drums-and-chorus formula that makes the listener feel as though they are being told a story, rather than just listening to another song about heartbreak, insecurities, and the usual fare.
The final track on the album, ‘If You Wait’, finds Hannah Reid’s voice taking a decidedly Adele-like quality. But make no mistake, this track doesn’t have the teary, faux-soul ballad veneer that Adele built her career around. The piano and strings hang demurely back, almost fading into the background as Reid’s vocals soar with deft sureness and strength. She trades in her ethereal hush for a soaring, heartwrenching sound that seems to present the listener with a heartbroken soul, baring its feelings for all to see.
There really is nothing truly “wrong” with this amazing album. Most of the gripes that I had with it are more personal nitpicks of mine that other listeners will probably not agree with.
I find that some parts of the album are occasionally slightly melodramatic, both music-wise and lyrics-wise. I also found that some songs don’t really move the album forward. ‘Shyer’, for example, seems somewhat filler-ish. Despite that, for a trio of this caliber, even sounding slightly filler-ish, makes it sound better that many a planned track on a lesser band’s album.
Another small gripe of mine are the vocals. Hannah Reid skews pretty hard towards the dramatic, which sometimes gives the album a somewhat formulaic feel – start moody and brooding, cue the big climax, rinse, repeat. This is also reflected in the whole tone of the album itself. It’s so well put together, and the tracks go together so seamlessly and uniformly that the album starts to feel more like one long track, rather than an album. It sounds ludicrous for me to complain that an album is too homogenous, however it seems that sometimes it really is possible to have too much of a good thing.
The Verdict – 9.0 (amazing):
* Ethereal, introspective, brooding, but never boring.
* Perfectly balanced tone and mood throughout.
* Iconic tracks (especially ‘Young Years’ and ‘Nightcall’).
* Sampling and instrumentation are impeccable.
* Contains the best cover song in recorded history (‘Nightcall’).
* Excellent pacing, and excellent editing and mixing.
* Embraces the “less is more” aesthetic, to great effect.
* ‘Shyer’ feels slightly filler-ish.
* Occasionally over-dramatic.
For more on London Grammar, visit www.londongrammar.com.