The Long Blondes - "Couples"
As stylistically committed as it is a backflip away from 2006's 'Someone to Drive You Home', "Couples" is, for once, that rarity - a genuinely Difficult Second Album. Whereas that gleaming debut welded the Blondes' artful ambition to common - but never less than inspired - Indie Guitar Pop, this follow-up shows little regard for such prescriptives. Clearly this lot have ideas beyond being just another ramshackle guitar combo and "Couples" is steely proof that they have the wherewithal to demonstrate their ambition musically rather than simply through pose and propaganda.
Opener 'Century', drifting in on a shiver of synth and Kate Jackson's newly unveiled falsetto, sets the thrilling scene. Propelled by electronica that recalls early Depeche Mode, 'Century', with its spare and driving rythmn, could be the Blondes' 'Can't Get You Out of my Head' for the indie disco. The clipped funk of 'Guilt' follows and maybe the The Long Blondes really have 'gone pop'. But don't speak too soon. "Couples" soon offers up evidence aplenty that the recruitment of hyper-cool producer Erol Alkan combined with the Blondes' heady ambitions, isn't merely a simple leap into tempting pop waters. Guitars still dominate, but now held down by altogether more unadorned backing. And lyrically, the abandonment of narrative in favour of stark expressionism ("Promises broken, televison erased/Nothing is sacred, a can-can dance for the golden age") is to be applauded.
Halfway through, by the time we reach the staccato buzz of 'Round the Hairpin' and 'Too Clever by Half', two of the handful of tracks here that for once showcase Kate Jackson's upper range, you start to applaud the endeavour. For those concerned by gossip suggesting that Jackson has abandoned her infamous yelp and volume, fear not. The majority of "Couples" sees her typically full-throated and committed. The voice, seriously testing the octave above its comfort zone with breath-y falsetto, and doubtless further frustrating the tedious naysayers, remains a delight.
Repeated listens start to give some indication of what The Long Blondes have tried to achieve here. 'Erin O'Connor', whose bridge nearly gives way to a swirling chorus that recalls 'Only Lovers Left Alive' from their debut and the closing overdriven trammel of 'I'm Going to Hell', propelled by 'STDYH' dynamics, both stop short of unfurling brighter, fuller melodies. 'Here Comes the Serious Bit' is almost wilfully simplistic, its chanted hook part Sleater-Kinney part X Ray Spex. Reenie Hollis's buzzing bass intro to 'Erin O'Connor' sets the windows rattling. Casual listeners may well feel that songs like these are not as, say, fully realised as they might be. There's definitely a dogged dogme quality to "Couples"; its sheen and its stark intent ultimately takes precedence over melody.
All in all, because they, at the very least, communicate a cool intelligence as well as just cool, and because that effervescent debut really should buy them our indulgence, 'Couples' deserves time and some considerable effort. It may never, among some listeners, inspire the deepest love but a challenge carries with it rare value in these dark days of hallelujahs for mediocrity. A week in its presence - is that time enough to fully appreciate the lengths to which The Long Blondes have gone in order to avoid being just another NME-féted field-filler ? I suspect not. With that borne in mind, "Couples" is a blast. An icy one. Superb.