Alphabet Backwards present themselves as a joyful indie-pop band, and that kind of description is enough to set off alarm bells in some people’s heads. “Joyful indie-pop?!” they proclaim, noticeably aggrieved, “why, that can mean only one thing – that lot are as twee as it is possible to get!” It’s very easy to jump to a conclusion like that, but it is unfortunate that some of the Oxford band’s debut album pretty much fits the bill.
Major-key melodies and boy/girl vocal interplay are the order of the day, along with a sound palette that can never decide whether it wants to go right for the jugular or merely hint at the band’s full potential. Learning to strip things back every once in a while wouldn’t be such a bad idea, especially on an album like this. It’s one of the most joyous-sounding records you’re likely to hear this year; as the evenings start to lengthen, you may feel as though you need a warm and inviting album to snuggle up to, and this is most assuredly that album.
Songs like the impressively-layered opener Sunday Best can’t fail to put a smile on your face, and the one-two punch of Pockets and the Ben Folds-esque piano-pop of Ladybird is extremely effective. That’s all well and good, but anyone expecting any deep or meaningful lyrics should give this one a miss. There only seems to be one thing on the band’s mind, and that is the four-letter word called love, expressed in ways that are by turns charming and cringeworthy; the chorus to Big Top runs: “Our lips have got all the time in the world to be together.” And as sweet as that sentiment is, it falls flat. There are plenty of downright soppy declarations of love, too, and the lyrics are sometimes quite uninspired (“Let’s go to the sea, because there’s a message in a bottle written especially for me” – Taller). The band’s symphonic sound seems to suit their lovelorn outlook quite well, but much of this material is merely OK.
They don’t have enough killer songs to really make an impact; an album of music as potent as the urgent power-pop of Panda Eyes would definitely have helped them to stand out, but it’s the only song that dares to stick its head above the parapet. Elton John could make a case for this accolade also; it’s certainly the most musically adventurous song on the album, and its bass-driven, handclap-laden groove makes it difficult to resist. But it’s an all-too-rare flash of brilliance. Why they couldn’t have given Maisonette more room to breathe, rather than just leave it as a 24-second intro to that song, is bemusing. The album gets better – and more fun – as it goes on, and the band become more confident once they get past Lipshakes, which tries quite hard to make an impression but is swallowed up by the songs either side of it. But lyrical mis-steps and an unwillingness to step beyond their comfort zone leaves the impression of a band needing to up their game and write the gems that they are clearly capable of.