Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems a fair old while ago since dance music was held up as the jangle du jour that brings on bouts of heartfelt empathy, fun and feeling (and not necessarily just in the form of drunkenness, you unimaginative cretins). There was Katy B’s debut, ‘On A Mission’, which brought the type of feeling back to the dancefloor that doesn’t require a swift clock around the groper’s head with your handbag; Niki & The Dove’s ‘DJ, Ease My Mind’ is equally transporting as Katy B’s biggest banger; and Jamie Woon’s ‘Mirrorwriting’, for all that you probably can’t big-fish-little-fish to it, contains more smoochy, mooching sorrow than you can shake a Ronan Keating album at.
Prancing in on a similar jag in a pair of lurid Speedos, hair slicked back, is Friendly Fires’ second album, ‘Pala’. When we first heard about it, an ominous lull followed the band’s declaration that it was to take its title from part of an Aldous Huxley novel. “Oh dear,” we thought. “It’s Klaxons’ second album all over again, trying to be far too smart for its own good.” Except then the promo turned up in the office, everyone got hooked on its daft but delightful grasp of MASSIVE RAVEY POP, coffee breaks were replaced with Pina Colada Hour and ‘Surfing The Void’ was rightly relegated back to the deepest corners of memory.
Our own Alex Denney has been digging out his glowsticks by the sound of it, having given ‘Pala’ 8/10. He tackles that idea of our changing relationship with dance music quite splendidly, opining that “there’s something about the words ‘dance-punk band from St Albans’ that feels wronger than a fleet of parasailing donkeys. Really, what could be more passé in 2011 than some skinny jeans-clad berk thrusting his tiny cock all up in your grill as he gamely frugs through Talking Heads’ back catalogue?”
Let’s just relive Ed Macfarlane’s peerless moves, shall we?
Getting back to those troublesome Klaxons, Denney writes, “Where ‘Surfing The Void’’s protracted birth throes sucked the mojo clean out of the new rave dons, ‘Pala’ is that rarest and most refreshing of propositions: a second album that actually sounds like it was a blast to make. It’s a record whose arena-sized ambitions work with rather than against the music, lending poise and focus to a sun-soaked carouse whose freewheeling spirit is a joy to behold.” He closes commenting that “resistance is futile”. Everyone loves fun, right?!
Oh hang on. Clash’s Matthew Bennet rather seems as though he underwent a humour lobotomy at birth. Giving ‘Pala’ a measly 4/10, he comments that “Clash isn’t anti-pop, but we are anticheese,” going on to chastise the “equal levels of mindlessness on tracks ‘Hurting’ and ‘True Love’ (I’ll spare you the lyrics) and the title track, (often where a sonic manifesto can be wrestled from) leaves us at a loss.” Bet these guys are great fun at a party.
We sink a little further into the doldrums with Kitty Empire’s 3/5 review of the album for The Observer. For all the bright parrots on the cover and sounds of lands distant and exotic, Kitty isn’t entirely convinced: “Ed Macfarlane’s vocals might locate this St Albans three-piece in a soaring indie tradition, but the trio’s mastery of euphoric rave dynamics and a generous supply of nagging tunes make the prospect of a humid Utopia seem like more than just a distant possibility.”
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And The Independent’s Andy Gill isn’t particularly enamoured of ‘Pala’s hip-thrusting strains either. He spares a few kind words for “the African-flavoured guitar intro to ‘Pull Me Back To Earth’, the liquid ambience of ‘Helpless'”, but wagers in general that the “follow-up to their Mercury-nominated debut is a huge disappointment.” In fact, it gets worse – he states that their “vein of blue-eyed yuppie techno-soul … [is] as wrong a turning as any young, upcoming band has taken in the past decade.”
Saving the best ’til last, however, the BBC’s Lou Thomas has come over all a-fluster with glee about the record – in the best way possible, obviously. Penning essentially my favourite sentence anyone has written about this album, Thomas states, “When Ed Macfarlane sings, ‘As I hear your voice, it sets my heart on fire,’ only the soberest of men and women won’t want to parade around in revealing swimwear and drizzle viscous, mango-flavoured fluids on themselves.” Bearing the totally opposite opinion to Andy Gill, Lou reckons that “this second effort is a might step upwards,” one that “leaves you thinking that anything might be possible.”
Let’s give the final word to Drowned In Sound’s Krystina Nellis, who makes both the sonic and mental space that Friendly Fires call home seem like the most blissful of holiday destinations: “Last time they were bringing the funk. This time they’re taking us off to Ibiza with a couple of Es hidden in their shoes.”
And getting back to our earlier point about dance music being all about empathy and actually meaning something (maaaaan) at the moment, Krystina’s got the endearing charm of ‘Pala’ in a nutshell: “What we have in Pala is not some great band reinvention, or some desperately profound effort; it’s giant choruses, relatable lyrics, a million earworm riffs and 11 dance anthems. If there’s a bone to pick, it’s in the fact that it occasionally feels just like a collection of songs rather than a cohesive whole. And like that album: pop, indie, whatever – who cares when the songs are this much fun?”
AMEN TO THAT. So, what do you reckon?