The U.K. is a weird scene to break for any freshly-sprouted indie band. On the one hand, the way is illuminated by plenty of “next big things” who were featured on the soundtrack to a spunky sitcom for the young ‘uns, whose second album sits just about on prominent display in HMV’s bargain racks. The path far better-trodden is strewn with the corpses of other, greater bands, whose zither-centric space-glam techno was just slightly too before its time, their ground-breaking sonic labors consigned only to a diehard fan’s record player or the second stage at Latitude festival.
This is what make’s alt-J’s debut offering, An Awesome Wave, all the more impressive.
(Well, that and the fact that these four well-spoken boys have already won this year’s Mercury Music Prize.)
On the surface, alt-J has checked everything off the list that would otherwise guarantee the band ignominy outside of East London: their name is a keyboard shortcut expressed most accurately as ‘∆’, they’ve been penned into the fantastically restrictive genre of “folk-step” (at least by early reviewers) and the Cambridge foursome’s lyrics namecheck Luc Besson’s “Leon,” Hubert Selby Jr.’s controversial novel “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” and a photojournalist’s tryst at the centre of the Spanish Civil War. On these merits alone, An Awesome Wave appears to be a hipster’s wet dream, smugly referencing near-esoteric culture.
As with any great album, however, alt J’s effort is far more than the sum of its parts. In doffing their musical caps to a pantheon of other artists, the band manages to articulate that which would otherwise be beyond them. When Joe Newman murmurs the line “Just like Johnny Flynn said: ‘The breath I’ve taken and the one I must to go on”–in a love letter to Jean Reno, “Matilda”–he’s acknowledging the profound effect which the London folkster has had on his songwriting process. After all, why attempt to redefine a great thought if you can admit that someone older and wiser got there first?
In the end, alt-J determinedly sidesteps the tag of “pretentious” as the record is an earnest labor of passion rather than of intentional obtuseness. This is heard most tellingly in the layered make-up of each song. Gwil Sainsbury’s guitars grumble and echo alongside Newman’s own far above an expansive rhythm section, which desensitizes with its syncopation as much as it revels in its straight-beat choruses. Recently re-released single “Tessellate” exploits this most fruitfully, though only through the rhythm section: rim-shots and booming floor toms become augmented by tin-pan hits to give the drums a reassuringly live feel, yet with all the military precision of a Logic drum loop.
That is not to say that An Awesome Wave is a perfect work by any means. Newman’s vocal delivery will certainly have its detractors, as it slots all-too-comfortably between the swallowed yelpings of Bombay Bicycle Club’s Jack Steadman and Foals’ bearded wonder Yannis Philippakis. It’s in such moments of imperfection, though, as voices crack, synths jar and the band’s triangular fixation becomes all the more apparent, that you feel a true connection to alt-J’s sonic art.
No matter the band’s intentions, alt-J have created an album which has become distanced from the “typical indie: archetype without a sniff of pretense. It’s a record which consistently lowers any and all barriers between artist and listener and, in doing so, makes you feel exceptionally welcome.
Heck, if four nice young men from Cambridge asked you over for a cup of tea over a thinking man’s film, you’d be hard pressed to deny them the pleasure.