On their eponymous debut of 2009, Fool’s Gold sounded like a wilfully bizarre and hugely enjoyable band. Against a rhythmic backdrop inspired by Nigerian and Malian musical traditions, frontman Luke Top sang largely in Hebrew. Whilst the African influence made the group very much of their time, sharing common ground with bands such as Vampire Weekend and Dirty Projectors, the overall result was a compelling and distinctive hybrid sound.
For the follow-up, it is arguable that the band have stripped away everything that made them so exciting. Hebrew has been abandoned in favour of English, ostensibly because Luke Top felt he had written a set of personal songs that needed to be understood clearly and widely. In reality, the difference is little more than purely cosmetic given how difficult it often is to discern exactly what Top is singing about. Gone too is much of the rhythmic interest, with familiar backbeat rock rhythms and reverb-laden jangly guitars dominating the sound. Even the Tinariwen-esque groove of Balmy seems to take few risks.
Leave No Trace seems considerably more subsumed within current trends than its predecessor. There is a strong eighties element to the production and the overall sound. Synths are more prominent and, when the guitar jangle is in full flight, the most obvious reference point is surely The Smiths (on the delighful shuffle of The Dive especially). On Wild Window, they closely resemble Mystery Jets, although this may be purely coincidental.
There is little that is truly objectionable about Leave No Trace. The music is uplifting and bright and there are plenty of memorable hooks. The change in direction at least suggests that this is a band prepared to develop and change rather than simply repeat itself. The group is clearly as adept at delivering appealing, quirky pop songs as it is at handling complex rhythmic material.
Yet it’s hard to escape the obvious fact that there are plenty of bands making music like this. The saxophone, a major and often surprising feature of the group’s debut, does not make an appearance until Street Clothes, the album’s third track. The excessive deployment of reverb and effects renders much of the music murky and unclear and leaves many of the lyrics concealed. Perhaps this is simply a way to sustain the sense of unfamiliarity and intrigue that characterised the debut. With hints at R.E.M., Talking Heads and especially The Cure, Leave No Trace covers an awful lot of already eroded ground. By far the most interesting tracks here, Tel Aviv and Mammal, are the closest to the sonic and vocal template of the band’s debut.
It’s undoubtedly very difficult for a band to follow a highly acclaimed debut, especially when it has only reached a marginal, cult audience. Perhaps Fool’s Gold arrived so conceptually fully formed that there were few options in terms of developing and building their sound. Open-mindedness and a change of approach is often laudable but, in this case, it has resulted in an album that, whilst entirely pleasant and enjoyable, is far less adventurous