Little Boots - Nocturnes
Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before but I’d have gambled my grandmother on this not being much cop. Hands, Little Boots’ 2009 debut was, somewhat against the odds, nigh on perfect. Sure, the hype machine got crazy with your expectations and that top spot on the BBC Sound of 2009 list - was it ever anything other than the cruellest millstone? But, unexpectedly, at least for us cynics (realists), a deft pairing of song craft and sharp production made sure Little Boots stepped comfortably from style mag to stage. Hands was as accomplished a slab of perfect pop as you might have hoped for, and a handful of its biggest hitters eventually seeped into the broader awareness. Hell, you could hardly find a TV feature ‘sound bed’ that didn’t feature ‘Remedy’ or ‘New In Town’. Fellow Beeb nominees Florence and La Roux might have been quicker out of the blocks but a year after release Hands had stood its ground. The long run, you suspected, might just be an option after all.
But that was four years ago. Four. Years. A lifetime in pop. Once, such apparent commercial negligence might have met itself coming back and magically transformed into cash till-friendly ‘mystique’. No such chance these days. There’ll be another kooky popstrel chanteuse along before you can say “Where’s me tenori-on?” Yeah, it’s all too easy right now to overly indulge every little shift in the means of distribution, industry re-organisation, cultural re-alignment. But, still. Four. Years. Megastars with Cessnas on the drive have lost a million-strong fanbase in a fraction of the time. Victoria, um, where ya been?
Unlike that sparkling debut, which, despite the pressure on its creator, seemed to appear almost immediately and from nowhere, its successor has had a wholly more visible, more troubled, gestation. Little Boots arrived in the guise of geek songwriter, as in love with tech as much as her craft. She filled her YouTube channel with home recordings of cool covers and her own startling compositions. But if she still spends endless hours hunched over the piano, developing that craft, her public persona paints a different picture. She didn’t tweet the progress, or lack of, of her first album for the watching world. But for Nocturnes, social media has tracked its every faltering step, the subtext being not much more than: Why I still haven’t finished the fucking album – alright?? Is this the Little Boots who had the effrontery to tweet that she wished people would stop asking when the album would be out? (And then went into a sulk when her followers pointed out that, well, they could always stop asking, if she’d prefer...) Did she really opt for a globe-trotting whirl of DJ’ing and fashion shows over the more godly call of bedsit toil? Does not that way madness lie?
Well, on this evidence, no. If you’re feeling ungenerous, you could argue that four years for a mere ten tracks hardly demonstrates the ultimate in hunger and striving. But that would be harsh. For Nocturnes is tremendous, a blistering reminder that whatever she had back then (sorry – it’s only been four years, after all), is still very much alive and well. If only, and here’s the thrilling twist, in slightly different form.
Glitter ball pop makes way for something altogether cooler. Hands was brash, stomping, playful. Nocturnes lives up (largely) to its name. A darker, sleeker, beats-driven affair, it doesn’t abandon melody completely, but it’s made for the dance floor. It’s properly at home in the club, not the piano room. If you’ve been paying attention, none of this will be a surprise. What is slightly surprising, however, is how the whole package connects, how, within its spare, clean arrangements, it comes across as developed and full.
At its best when it really shows come conviction and distances itself from its predecessor, Nocturnes is let down by the odd moment of confusion. The cod-rhumba of ‘Broken Record’ and the bafflingly over-cooked closer ‘Satellite’ – a bit like Hazel Dean but without the restraint – don’t really fit, are difficult to warm to. But its high spots are irresistible. 'Motorway’ and ‘Confusion’ are glorious, smooth slabs of stark beats, all breathy vocals and piano shimmer, the former building on a bed of bleeps reminiscent of Crystal Castles’ ‘Celestica’. The proto-funk sway of ‘Beat Beat’ is Kylie’s ‘Love at First Sight’ in all but name. Album trailer ‘Broken Record’ is largely swoonsome, despite that awkward staccato chorus: “Thought you were out of my mind...” is as devastatingly succinct a depiction of in-and-out-of-love as you’ll find in a pop song this week. Elsewhere, ‘Crescendo’, a blast of anthemic, pure pop, steps outside of the game plan. ‘Strangers’, a trippy, bass-driven mood piece is dizzying, all tears on the dancefloor: “I know you so well, that we danced like strangers tonight...” As on Hands, some unexpectedly exhuberant wordplay adds dimension and depth.
The production is seamless, a blueprint delivered expertly and efficiently. Reference points are pretty much as before...only more. Kylie’s Fever and its robo-disco sheen. St Etienne at their most uncompromising and outré. The clipped beats and synthesized bass of 90s house. Dance heads will offer a chin stroke to the involvement behind the desk of Tim Goldsworthy. All told, Nocturnes sounds and feels sensational. Respectful enough of the analogue archive to retain credibility, it keeps enough of an eye on the future to suggest sticking around for further adventures might be a smart move. Laudably schizophrenic, it expertly shuffles both retro and future sounds.
There was every reason to fear the worst, but Nocturnes does much to repay your dwindling faith. Who’d have thought it? She knew what she was doing all along. Roll on 2017.