Rats – the 2013 album by five-piece Balthazar – might not have been heard by many outside the band’s native Belgium, but those who did hear it are likely to have fallen under its decadently melodic spell. Two years later comes Thin Walls, an album composed sporadically on occasional days off during a frenetic period of touring.
Not that the listener would notice it. Thin Walls, like Rats, comprises 10 elegant, craftily-arranged indie pop songs. Opener Decency might be the quintessential Balthazar song: it unfolds at an unhurried pace, it features some luxurious strings, and vocalist Maarten Devoldere sings in the manner of a drunk man wishing to conceal the fact that he is drunk.
Even if one didn’t know the two bands share a country of origin, Balthazar would still elicit comparisons with dEUS. Specifically, both acts mix elements of chamber pop with more traditional indie rock tropes and, more generally, the two acts share a certain crumpled elegance – although it should be noted that Balthazar are far less experimental than their elder countrymen.
But there are several other influences at play on Thin Walls: Last Call beings to mind Tindersticks; the barroom blues of I Looked For You resembles late-era Tom Waits, while So Easy’s queasy strings would have fitted perfectly on The Beatles’ White Album. Elsewhere, the scabrous guitars on Then What finds Balthazar at their most straightforwardly ‘indie rock’; Nightclub and Bunker showcase the band’s talent for writing elegant, serpentine melodies, while closer True Love would make the perfect singalong for a pub lock-in.
If there’s a problem with Thin Walls, then it’s sameiness: both within the album itself and with respect to its predecessor, Rats. The first five tracks are uniformly excellent, but the second half feels like an exercise in treading water. There are perhaps two songs too many that rely on lazy ‘woah-oh’ refrains to carry them along. In addition, the album doesn’t feel like a significant progression from Rats. Put the two albums’ combined 20 tracks in a shuffle and the uninitiated listener would find it impossible to detect a join.
No matter: Thin Walls is another strong album from a band who deserve a much wider audience in the UK and beyond.