Album Reviews

Bell X1 – Blue Lights On The Runway

(Belly Up) UK release date: 16 March 2009

Irish band Bell X1 are probably best known for being the ex-bandmates ofDamien Rice and, latterly, for being one of those semi-credible bands whosetracks get chosen to punctuate key “dramatic” moments on US teen dramas (seeThe O.C., One Tree Hill, etc.). Blue Lights On The Runway is their fourthalbum. It manages to do neither less, nor much morefor their case than those two facts might suggest.

There’s a definite whiff of the 1980s to this album. A few tracksfeature a noticeably retro synth riff or two, like enjoyably jaunty openerThe Ribs Of A Broken Umbrella and my favourite track of all, lead single TheGreat Defector. They also sound as if they use a drum machine in places,particularly on How Your Heart Is Wired.

There’s quite a strange mix of styles going on here. Even a cursorylisten will reveal a marked resemblance, almost to the point of pastiche, toTalking Heads in general, and David Byrne‘s vocals in particular, on a fairfew tracks. How Your Heart Is Wired has a backing that is in places veryreminiscent of the nice frantic-twinkly bits from the Heads’ Same As It EverWas, for example; The Great Defector’s features jaunty afrobeat rhythms andByrne-like vocals; and both A Better Band and One Stringed Harp also bringmore of the same influences very much to mind.

In other places they appear to be aiming more for what you mightcall the KeaneSnowPatrolColdplay school of sensitive indie balladry. Ifthis is your bag, then I would direct you forthwith to the piano-led, andnicely melancholic Blow Ins, or the (rather dull) Light Catches Your Face,or gently elegiac closing track The Curtains Are Twitching. The success ofsuch tracks generally rides on the melody, and here Bell X1 get twoout of three pretty right.

Where they have occasionally got things quite gratingly wrong ison the lyrical front, such as the description of being “stripped of hisskin / like the ribs of a broken umbrella / sticking out of a bin” in theopening track, and the contrasting “him and her” or “you and I” couplets inBreastfed (although I suspect they may have got this idea from TheWaterboys‘ Whole Of The Moon…): “You save yourself / I’m saved by the bell”.

However, every now and then a description, phrase or metaphor isthrown in that just jars – either because it sounds, frankly, contrived(“You’re the chocolate at the end of my cornetto”, from The Great Defector),or because it’s just plain charmless: “You’re just picking your knickersfrom your arse / Like you’re playing a one-stringed harp”, say, or “We’reall bulimic / But keep forgetting to puke” (both from the unlovely OneStringed Harp).

It’s a shame – they are clearly a literate and articulatebunch, but the most arresting images from their songs are those just quoted,rather than any of the more poetic, touching, apt or even amusing ones thatthey are no doubt capable of producing.

It is hard, then, to give a neat summarising overview of this album as acohesive whole. But where it works, it has produced some fairly memorabletracks that would likely do well both as singles and to soundtrack that next big teen love scene.

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More on Bell X1
Bell X1 – Bloodless Coup
Bell X1 – Blue Lights On The Runway
Bell X1 – Flock