Australian's relationship with home-grown pop music has always been healthy. Whilst discretion is blatantly advised regarding international acts who make it on to Triple M from Triple J (see Kings Of Leon), locals are championed when commercial success is achieved, no matter the method. Believe it or not, GOTYE is not a dirty 'word' amongst Australia's hipster elite. Jet, famously SLATED by Pitchfork, twice, made no missteps in making it to number one on the Triple J Hottest 100 in 2003 (I should note that Triple J is, for our out of state readers, the official standard in new alternative music. Think our version of XFM). Even Human Nature, now a Motown tribute group performing in Las Vegas, the absolute height of sell-out, are still blessed with a strong reputation amongst the younger generation.
So it is with open arms we embrace the watered down, smooth edged pop-rock of a band like Birds Of Tokyo. By all rights, if they were being entirely unfair, the pretentious few amongst the listening community should really shun them. After independently releasing their first two records, Day One and Universes, the latter winning a nomination for the coveted J Award, alarm bells should have rung when they signed with EMI and enlisted Michael Brauer of Coldplay fame to mix their brilliant 2010 self-titled record. Even more so when the second single, Plans, proved a massive crossover hit, featuring everywhere from the Hottest 100 (4th) to every hit playing radio station, to Mastercard Direct Debit events! Day One was a stomping rock throwback, melding favoured attributes of Powderfinger, Silverchair and The Living End, aussie rock royalty. Universes carried this trend, with an added melodic sensibility. By the time Birds Of Tokyo came around, the DNA for March Fires was fully formed.
It was, I will admit, a hard sell for me at first. The stadium rock aspirations, the blatantly smoothed edges, a volume knob that was once duct-taped on 11 but was now safely in the relative comfort of 6. It's a pop record. But why does that have to detract from the listening experience? As I said, elsewhere in the world, Williamsberg for example, starting a record off with something like Liquid Arms is a shunnable offence. Following it up with the second best pop-rock song of the year, and the best at number 5, you'd be burned at the stake. But whilst Liquid Arms lacks teeth, it provides a beautifully strong pulse, a rousing vocal performance from Kenny, and a throbbing keyboard injection from Sarangapan. The muted emotion in the music masks the depth in the words, Kenny describes the sweet, warm embrace of alcohol and his desperation to remain in its perma-haze, 'I surrender to liquid arms / In the ether / Answers found / And I don't want to leave / Or lose this peace'. You wouldn't open a live show with it, but it serves its purpose nicely here.
Others have remarked on the not so well-hidden fact that Kenny and co have written to a formula on this record. There are anthemic choruses, rousing guitar melodies, strong but unimaginative bass lines and by the books drumming. When The Night Falls Quiet could have been released by The Fray, rather than using strings to achieve those stratospheric heights in the chorus Kenny adds a choir-like element to propel his performance. Don't be alarmed, this is no My Chemical Romance quest for the perfect 'explosion' chorus. Everything is kept in check and the result is a lovely mobilising effect, Kenny implores us to 'riot as one' against whatever dark forces we are facing. On The Others he best take his own advice. Another energetic affair, created by an overworked bassist double-timing and the perfect hint of keys to punctuate statements, Kenny wonders 'Why don't I feel like all the others', effectively alienating himself from the army he roused on the second track.
This darker undertone provides the perfect foil to the positive surge the music provides. It's almost as if the lyrics were written by Kenny, alone, in a deserted shack in the Simpson Desert with a case of Jack Daniels and temperamental internet connection. When he interacts with the outside world, his load is lessened. On the brilliant Boy, the closest thing to a ballad on the record, his connection is obviously down, as we see him confronting a much brighter past from a desolute present, 'My memory's a vault / it plays against me' and 'It's been so long since, I remember days / when the sun would never fade'. It's the only track where the mood matches the words, as if the rest of the band finally caught his wave length. It's such a stirring picture of a grown man yearning for a past he knows no longer exists, watching it torment him is almost voyeuristic.
Then there are the brief moments when he ventures in to the light and is jump started in to positivity by those around him. Lanterns is the best pop/rock song of the year so far. It's a formula so many have tried to replicate and been chastised for their poor execution, Keane and OneRepublic for example, but this does not disappoint. A humble beginning, an impossibly simple bass partners Kenny as we begin his journey with him, 'In darkness I leave / For a place I've never seen / It's been calling out to me / That is where I should be'. Emerging from the darkness, the crowd call goes out, 'On we march / With a midnight song / We will light our way / With our lanterns on'. As each layer is added, the drums, the angelic backing vocals, you feel like you're marching down that road with him. When it explodes at 2:45 it's quite inspiring, 'And realised / We were chasing / Shadows behind / Not worth saving / So burn it bright / Forever illuminating'. Honestly they should play this in treatment facilities, it feels so much more sincere than you'd expect, there is no hint of pretension especially if you've sat yourself down in those dark corners with Kenny on the rest of the record.
Elsewhere on the we find lead single This Fire, the second best pop/rock song of the year, the anti-thesis to something like Station Approach by Elbow. An insight in to why Kenny took that hypothetical sabbatical in the Simpson desert, he shuns an over-crowded and relentless city with a jaded callousness, the drum-line beat and an excursion up to 9 on the volume knob propel the chorus and ensure it will be a mainstay on playlists for months to come. There are also 2 instrumental pieces, Motionless which is a stunning, spacey intro for Lanterns, and Blume, a delicate number that serves to arrest the heart rate after the epic, EDM romp that is the 8 minute White Leaves, another stunning piece that sees Kenny emerge in to his fabled light and explode in positivity. Rolling Stone had the interesting impulse to compare the 2 instrumentals to Brian Eno and Mogwai, but they are no more than well executed interludes. Hounds and Sirin do little to mess with the status quo.
8/10. I honestly love this record. It was a hard sell, but once it infected me I couldn't stop listening to it. For a good 4 days it was the only record I played, with the exception of their back catalogue. The wonderful mix of stadium pop/rock ambition and clear, relatable lyrical mission really resonates. When Kenny emerges, you emerge with him, when he retreats, you're sitting in the dark corner watching. You never really get to his level, because the music acts as the antidepressant, ensuring a base level of enjoyment. A strange mix, but so very effective.
Best Tracks: White Leaves, Boy, Lanterns