Remarkably, these days, five albums in and still signed to a bona fide indie, Dutch Uncles shine like a beacon of independence and proof, if it were needed, that it is possible to forge a meaningful and credible career in the music industry without major label backing. Of course, the Memphis Industries label is the natural home for the band’s mathy guitar-pop. Opener, and title-track, ‘Big Balloon‘, is more of the angular nu-indie which fans of the band will have become accustomed to. As their spirit band, the Field Music influence is manifest in the slap bass and slick guitars but it is frontman Duncan’s distinctive delivery that continues to set the band apart from its peers.
If danceable time signatures are the band’s calling card, the descending riff of ‘Baskin‘ almost disguises its Frankie & The Heartstrings like melody while ‘Combo Box‘ is more Grace Jones than Peter Gabriel.
However, listening to this album for the first time on Trump’s inauguration day, it was difficult not to be taken in by the topical content of some of the lyrics. On ‘Hiccup, the “bigger than truth” line in the chorus is particularly prescient. Paranoid and personal at times, this is an album steeped in 80s pop sensibilities but very much in the now. Whereas last album, 2015’s O Shudder, was written with one eye on the stadium crowds they had experienced touring with Paramore and oddly over-egged the pop pudding while simultaneously erring on the side of MOR caution, on Big Balloon they get back to the serious business of putting the world to rights but without losing the trademark skip in their step. There are synths galore and enough piano and strings to shake a sugar stick at.
‘Oh Yeah‘, the most overtly Tears For Fears influenced track with its lush boy/girl backing vocals and quirky middle eight is a highlight, meanwhile ‘Achameleon‘ builds like something from Watership Down before bridging into a stabbing medley of violins, piano and emotive vocals. Quality stuff and nothing if not inventive but it is difficult to find any centrepiece moments to pin a ‘classic’ rosette to here and it’s so painfully kitsch at times. ‘Streetlight‘ is the most likely hit (or certainly ripe for an Ibiza friendly remix anyway), light of step, heavy on the synths and lovely heartfelt vocals, easily the most uplifting and toe-tappingly instant.
Closer ‘Overton‘ sums the album up, its melancholic opening quickly giving way to a punchy verse/chorus but the “stuck in the mud” lyrical theme just fails to successfully couple with the bands natural jauntiness. So, it is Big Balloon’s determined resolve to have a good time despite almost an obligation to rally and politicise at times that ends up holding it back somewhat. I dare say there will be half a dozen albums this year comparable to Dutch Uncles. Will there be any better? I fear, probably.
Big Balloon is released on 17th February through Memphis Industries.