TRACKLISTING:1. Neil Armstrong
4. Some People Say
5. Northern Lights
8. The Letter
9. Still Young
The darlings of the UK’s indiepop scene, Allo Darlin’, follow up their critically acclaimed and hugely adored self-titled debut with their new album Europe. The London-based four-piece – led by Australian songbird Elizabeth Morris, with guitarist Paul Rains, Bill Botting on the bass and Michael Collins on drums – have created another masterpiece full of perfect, sophisticated pop gems.
Achingly personal, incredibly poignant and familiar all at once, Elizabeth Morris’ songwriting has deepened and developed since their debut, although they’ve lost none of their ability to create sophisticated, intelligent pop music with an uplifting, joyous feel. There’s a sense though that the feel of the new record, Europe, reflects the changes in the world since their debut in 2009 – with riots and protests across the globe and a deepening feeling of gloom, a carefree album didn’t seem appropriate. Singer Elizabeth Morris explains: “I wanted to make beautiful songs and end up with a beautiful album, not necessarily an album full of three minute pop songs… the songs have an awareness of a darker place but end up coming out the other side.”
Already named as Rough Trade's Album of the Month, Europe is chock full of memorable songs including the first single "Capricornia", which conjures up the bleached sunlight of summer in the area from which Elizabeth hails in Australia. Then there’s the title track and next single "Europe", a celebration of the togetherness that pulled the band through a disastrous tour of the continent last year, when noxious fumes in their tour van nearly put paid to them altogether. There’s the epic “Still Young”, the song that their friends The Wave Pictures refer to as their “Born To Run”, the wonderful "Northern Lights" about spending New Year's Eve in Sweden and “Wonderland“, the last song written for the album and one of the band’s favourites. Perhaps the two best songs on the album are the ballads. If Elizabeth describes the extraordinary "Tallulah" as "probably the best song I've written", then “Some People Say” runs it close for sheer, heartfelt emotion.
Gloriously catchy, brilliantly uplifting and charmingly intelligent, Europe is one of the most exciting albums of the year, and is sure to please their existing loyal fanbase as well as winning over hoards of new admirers.
Elizabeth Price, who co-founded influential 1980s indie-pop outfit Talulah Gosh when she was an art student, opens an exhibition of video installations later this month at a London gallery. Using pop music from the Shangri-Las, A-Ha, and others, she has said she hopes to convey an unruly humanity she believes is too often missing from contemporary art. "It's cool, it's measured, it's outside of things, and I think that's a complete delusion," she explained in the latest issue of the Wire, suggesting art should instead relate to our "actual social lives."
That's a useful prism for approaching Allo Darlin', the best new group in recent years from a pop tradition that attempts to counter what its members might perceive as the market-corroded fantasy of corporate pop and the detached insularity of many underground records. Led by Australian-born Elizabeth Morris, who previously played with ex-Talulah Gosh frontwoman Amelia Fletcher in Tender Trap, the London foursome established themselves as worthy heirs to Belle and Sebastian, Camera Obscura, and the Sarah Records roster with their 2010 self-titled debut, all hummable melodies, clap-along rhythms, and poignantly turned phrases. Europe maintains these qualities and improves upon its predecessor in almost every way.
Their second album's title refers to the group's ill-fated van tour through Germany and beyond in 2011, clocking in at five weeks and more than 12,000 miles. From the debt crisis to the broadening, increasingly politicized definition of "Europe," the continent remains as ripe for artistic exploration, but Allo Darlin' filter any subliminal economic malaise through clear-eyed observations of what feel like genuine everyday experiences. Where on their debut it was easy to match up individual songs with their specific historical and cultural inspirations, here the band sounds confidently itself, with any pop-culture references wrapped up naturally into the emotional lives of the characters in the songs.
The songs are richer both instrumentally and lyrically: Strings dress up the breathless title track, and the steel guitar of the debut's "Heartbeat Chilli" returns to lend a bittersweet twang on occasion. But more remarkable is the band's core, which shines brighter than ever. Morris' high, bell-like, lightly accented vocals have gained new assurance, and although her ukulele gets its stripped-down showcases, mostly it's an understated complement to the fluid jangle-pop of guitarist Paul Rains, bassist Bill Botting, and drummer Michael Collins. Collins, especially, has grown more consistent since his first go-round without losing that in-the-moment vitality.
Which is crucial, because dizzying impermanence is what the album simultaneously celebrates and preemptively mourns. Morris' lyrics, her most heartbreaking yet, are at once alive with excitement and shrouded with the knowledge that this, too, is fleeting. From the first verse of cautiously optimistic opener "Neil Armstrong", Europe confesses to yearning for "a simpler time," and while the precocious narrator certainly suffers her bouts of homesickness, what the record is really nostalgic for is the ever-passing present. Morris dreams of her native Australia on sunny first single "Capricornia", and elsewhere she avails herself of snail-mail options for communicating with a faraway romantic interest. But no matter how broken she feels on "Europe", another character is at pinch-me levels of giddiness, telling her, "This is life/ This is living."
That youthful joy blooms throughout the album, and it's contagious. "I have a feeling that this day will be amazing," Morris proclaims unaffectedly on gorgeous, midtempo falling-in-love song "Some People Say". "This is the year we'll make it right," she further declares, on the Lucksmiths-style leap of "Northern Lights". On the Go-Betweens-gone-Beatles-in-Hamburg romp "Wonderland", the world feels like it's "ending," but only "when I'm with you"-- and happily, she doesn't care. Before the rousing call-and-response outro of the boozy "Still Young", Morris warns they shouldn't carry on like this, but you suspect they do anyway. Sure, there are a few lyrical over-reaches, but as with the debut's accelerating tempos, they're a testament to the energy captured here, and to dwell on them would be missing the point.
In Europe's world, pop songs are almost characters in their own right. Melancholy, uke-oriented finale "My Sweet Friend" recalls meeting a friend in the park "on the day a famous pop star died," and talks about how records can accrue extra-musical value through their significance in our lives. "Some People Say" hints at this idea early on, mentioning "the song that to me has a hidden meaning." But on sparse, vividly detailed stunner "Tallulah", run-ins with fortuitously familiar tunes-- Talulah Gosh, the Maytals-- prompt Morris to wonder "if I've already heard all the songs that'll mean something," or worse, "already met all the people that'll mean something." When, on wistful midtempo affair "The Letter" she confides to a Silver Jews obsessive, "What if I told you I was never cool/ And all I wanted was just to have you," there's no need to worry. 8.1.
In Allo Darlin’s Europe, there is no Greek debt crisis. No tensions with Iran. Just pop songs and broken hearts, and that seems like enough to worry about. The U.K. indie-pop quartet’s sophomore album is focused through the lens of nostalgia: Letters are penned, old friends are missed, and life seems better back in London than on the dizzying, deficit-challenged continent. But most of all, the lyrics of frontwoman Elizabeth Morris are devoted to songs themselves, treating them as characters with starring roles—good and bad—in her life.
As Morris deals with relationship woes and skirts the surface of larger tensions, those songs become the metaphor of her struggle to move on or retreat to the past. “I’m wondering if I’ve already heard all the songs that will mean something,” Morris sings in “Tallulah,” then ponders the same of the people she’s met. An opposing sentiment comes in album closer “My Sweet Friend,” whose title figure seeks to reassure her: “You said a record is not just a record / records can hold memories,” Morris sings, but it does no good: “All these records sound the same to me.” Yet the song—a downcast, ukulele-driven mid-tempo effort—doesn’t sound ready to embrace next week’s chart debuts.
It’s not all grey skies on Europe. It’s a second character who tells her to buck up once again on the title track: “You said, this is life / This is living,” and for a moment, Morris sings like she believes it. (And what a relief to find a singer who realizes emotional revelations don’t always gush forth from some mythic internal spring.)
Europe doesn’t break the band’s sonic mold. The album’s a touch more fleshed-out than Allo Darlin’s spare, strummed 2010 debut, turning to the relatively polished guitar jangle of the Go-Betweens—an admitted influence—or the Smiths, with slide guitars and string embellishments adding flavor to songs such as “Some People Say.” There are flashes of Belle & Sebastian on “Still Young,” a song that shimmers with 1997 Stevie Jackson-style guitar tones. Morris’ melodies are sober and clear, her deeper feelings peeking out from around the edges of her voice—a twee instrument in line with the UK’s humbly sad C86 tradition.
The band’s keen sense of its predecessors was evident in Allo Darlin’ tracks such as “Woody Allen,” but that was a different band, one dreaming of racing past its influences. Europe wisely opts to find its place among them. The result is a no less charming of a record, but one shadowed by maturity. Growing up and indie pop don’t always get along, but in Europe, they have plenty to teach each other.