Album Reviews

Friendly Fires – Pala

(XL) UK release date: 18 April 2011

It couldn’t be any more obvious that in releasing Pala mid-May, Friendly Fires are hoping to stake a claim to the quintessential summer album of 2011. Their post-debut mission statement vowed to breathe carnival into indie’s barren guitar-trodden landscape, and it’s with memories of some of 2009’s most unmissable festival performances that they return.

This new record sees St Albans’ most successful recent export venture deeper into their live territory. Named after Aldous Huxley’s novel, Island – a story of Pala, a doomed utopia fuelled by recreational drug use, trance states and tantric sex – it’s no surprise that Friendly Fires’ album evokes paradise from its very essence, only the kind grounded in festival fields and back gardens.

Doubtless, the album will cast the nets wider for record sales, but it isn’t a typical summer smash that’s shallow and too easily consumed. Paul Epworth’s intelligent production across the 11 tracks adds depth, maintaining surprise even after the first few listens.

Single, Live Those Days Tonight, is an irresistible slice of Mardi Gras percussive electro pop that takes the early 90s rave days down from their pedestal. Blue Cassette’s French, Ed Banger underbelly branches from that, with a chorus that bursts through a trademark silence and drop – a welcome chill factor for sun-soaked spines during the hotter months.

Pala’s pancontinental influences broaden with Hawaiian Air, where South American street party and Paul Simon meet, bowing to Huxley’s novel by “Skipping a meal for a G&T”. African imprints also crop up on Running Away, as do Paul Epworth’s production values, peering through vocals and chiming keyboards with an air of Jack Penate‘s Everything Is New. Back on firm European territory there’s Hurting – a slick track which ambiguously aims sarcasm at ’90s boy bands, with breaths of fresh air from Harlem Gospel Choir.

R ‘n’ B gets its Friendly Fires debut, mixed to unusual effect with tautly plucked math guitars on the album title track, Pala, which delves into the depths of Huxley’s landscape. Timberlake beats dip the toes a little further into the genre on the impeccable Show Me Lights, only this time doused with percussive atmospheres.

It’s over the latter few tracks that the band reconcile the old with the new, mixing the influences they’ve so far used on the album. Holy Ghost!‘s Alex Frankel guests on True Love’s bow to the ’80s, and Pull Me Back To Earth picks up the math guitars and afro beats, adding dizzying layers of sound evocative of Jump In The Pool. Chimes’ four-to-the-floor beat is welded patiently with a twinkling xylophone, while Helpless has soft sound effects and fluttering keyboards that match with its lyrics, washing like waves on a shore, all bound by solid electronica.

It seems Pala is Friendly Fires’ successful attempt to translate their positivity-injected carnival live performances into a record. In the process, it just so happens they’ve delivered what deserves to be the soundtrack to the summer; the memories it creates preventing it from forced hibernation through the winter months. It might’ve been named after a fated utopia, but for them, Pala is far from doomed.

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