Over the last few years, Manchester’s Dutch Uncles have quietly established themselves as one of the most consistently excellent bands in the country. For their fifth album, Big Balloon, all the appropriate ingredients are there: the jerky rhythms, the unusual time signatures and opaque lyrics are all present and correct, along with a strange feeling that you’re not entirely sure what’s going to happen next.
Big Balloon was apparently influenced by Red Shoes-era Kate Bush and David Bowie‘s Low – but you’d be hard-pressed to identify that on the first few listens. Dutch Uncles have pretty much taken the sound that’s served them well so far and embellished it. Possibly the closest comparison would be labelmates Field Music, although lead singer Duncan Wallis does sound remarkably similar to Hot Chip‘s Alexis Taylor at times too: this is intelligent art-rock indie that you throw yourself about to.
It may take a few listens for the hooks to really get their claws into you though. The opening title track is possibly the catchiest moment on the album, a big bouncy anthem with lyrics that just about balance that fine line between surreal poetry and nonsense (“The jungle days on the VCR are filling up gravity and spaceship parts, leave it all for potato lands”). Oh Yeah is similarly addictive, a frantic floor-filler with strange key changes and lyrics about avocados – it really shouldn’t work, but you’ll find yourself going back to it time and time again.
Jittery time signatures are pretty much Dutch Uncles’ trademark by now, but now and again they take things down a notch or two. Achameleon sits halfway through the record and is a genuinely striking track, an intricate mid-paced song built on both strident piano chords and a string section. Maybe it’s here that the Red Shoes influence is most notable, displaying a love of experimentalism that La Bush herself would be proud of.
Big Balloon certainly has a strong second half, with Streetlight a definite highlight, Wallis’ vocals drifting in over a cinematic sweep of a synth line. The ’80s influences are strong, with the song sounding oddly like China Crisis at times – it’s followed by the aforementioned Oh Yeah, which is paired with the similarly breakneck tempo of Sink, another song that sounds like everything bar the kitchen sink has been thrown at it, but against all the odds works just beautifully.
Admittedly, some people may find the constant key changes and overall quirkiness of Dutch Uncles a bit much to take all at once. It’s also more than likely that Big Balloon will keep the band just under the radar, a position they’ve pretty much taken up since their formation in 2008 – while long-term fans will lap up the album, there’s still not really that killer commercial breakthrough which will see them following the likes of Foals into bigger arenas. However, as another reassuringly consistent entry in the Dutch Uncles canon, this will do nicely.