Partner Look – ‘By the Book’ review: soft-stepping indie pop with its poignant moments

Members of Cool Sounds and Studio Magic tell playful tales and reflect on the concept of home on this debut album

Brandishing matching outfits, simple lyrics, and even a theme song, Partner Look make a fairly lightweight first impression. But there’s surprising staying power to the Melbourne quartet’s soft-stepping indie pop, which gets loopier and more askew over the course of this debut album.

That would-be theme song, ‘Partner Look’, opens the proceedings, playfully unpacking the German term for when partners begin to dress like each other. That’s all too fitting for this band, who are two sets of partners: German sisters Ambrin and Anila Hasnain, and Dainis Lacey and Lachlan Denton. It’s also a perfectly catchy introduction, a pure slice of daydreamy bubblegum.

Formed in 2018 as a wedding gift for a friend in Germany, Partner Look easily convey the sense of eavesdropping on a charming four-way hang. That instant feeling of compatibility and comfort comes not just from them being partners (or siblings), but also from playing together elsewhere. Ambrin and Lacey both appear in Cool Sounds, and Anila and Denton in Studio Magic. All four take turns at lead vocals here, adding to the casual, conversational flow.

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Fans of Denton’s work in The Ocean Party, Pop Filter and his collaborative albums with Emma Russack will appreciate his low-key pop instincts here, beginning right from that opening track. And Lacey’s cracked, plaintive vocals carry over nicely from Cool Sounds. But it’s especially a treat to hear the Hasnain sisters come to the fore, starting with Ambrin’s horse-inspired single ‘Rodeo Tragic’. It sounds like something that Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus would sneak onto one of his later solo albums, when the stakes were lower and he was just enjoying himself. Anila’s song ‘Water’ follows suit, unfolding with endearing lightness.

But there are more anxious turns, too, like the mesmerising post-punk of ‘Speed Limit’, which borrows its mantra-like chorus (“Only sleep cures fatigue”) from a well-known Victorian road campaign. Evoking the sinewy pop minimalism of Young Marble Giants, it’s more tense and absurd than breezy. Likewise, ‘Grasshopper’ starts out sounding like a children’s song but instead tells the stranger story of an insect accidentally crushed beneath someone’s sandal.

Other songs poignantly return to a theme of dislocation that’s perhaps inevitable when half of the band members have been separated from their homeland during the pandemic. ‘Deutschland’ is in fact Denton’s love letter to the Hasnains’ native Germany – complete with some German lyrics – while ‘Geelong’ describes seeing Melbourne friends leave the capital city in favour of the title’s mellower regional centre on the coast.

That idea of home as a malleable concept comes out most in the closing ‘Endless Plains’, on which Denton absorbs an ocean-top sunrise while aboard an aeroplane from Singapore. That inspires him to muse about his relationship to Australia, lamenting the country’s colonial history while admitting the appeal of its wide-open geography. “It’s bigger than a name, or any political game,” he sings.

On an album that starts off dissecting the winsome in-joke of the band’s name, that parting track might just be the song that inspires someone to hit play again and listen more closely for such quieter, meaningful moments. They’re very much there on ‘By The Book’, nestled between the perky pop gems swapped gamely between four intertwined souls.

Details

  • Release date: February 4
  • Record label: Spunk Records
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