On July 2nd this year, The Ramona Flowers supported Stereophonics in Wrexham before 20,000 fans for what they claimed would be the biggest gig of their lives. Around the time their debut album Dismantle And Rebuild was released in 2014, the support slots were for the likes of Bastille and Bombay Bicycle Club, so it would seem as if the Bristolian quintet are on the up.
The debut didn’t enjoy the best of times with critics as their obvious potential was glossed over with the focus centring on their 1980s sound unfavourably and, to be honest, rather unfairly. The eclecticism within the album was partly to blame as various styles came and went through its 47 or so minutes.
Album number two – Part Time Spies – now arrives and it’s hard to avoid that classic old phrase of “difficult second album”. Within the debut there were a few instances of a stop/start construction to songs (eg Tokyo and World Won’t Wait) that stopped tracks in full flow only to re-start again further down the line; not a problem if they’re very occasional, but it would seem as if the band are obsessed with this approach.
Opening track and single Dirty World is the first to suffer this treatment. Somehow managing to capture what the band is all about in one four and a half minute microcosm, the song nods like an over-excited puppy at the ’80s once again. “Is that Duran Duran?”, you may be tempted to say out loud for the intro’s crescendo before a cheesy, almost steel-drum toned keyboard disappointingly taps into earshot instead of the Birmingham band’s Planet Earth.
After declaring there’s a wolf inside, you hit another ’80s flashback. “Is that A Flock Of Seagulls?” you may be tempted to ask out loud as the line “I can’t tell, if it’s heaven or hell” sounds remarkably similar to the chorus of the Liverpudlians’ I Ran. Needless to say, despite trying very hard with its anthemic chorus push, Dirty World falls way short of its early peers, never quite lifting off due to this incessant habit of stopping and starting.
More stop/start mischievousness appears in Skies Turn Gold as the song this time leans more towards the side of the ’80s that are probably less popular with reminiscing synth-pop folk – think Go West bopping along to an underpinned beat akin to Inner City’s Good Life. The bubbly keyboards of Run Like Lola lead to a synth-soaked chorus where things could get a bit more interesting if they were left to continue to run riot; alas, they’re not, once more being reined in during full flight. As for the hideously out of place lyrics “fucking” and “bullshit” that appear in Designer Life, the less said the better.
On an album that yearns to be from the dancier side of the ’80s, it comes as a surprise, then, that the best tracks don’t follow this formula at all. Hurricane tinkles along to a spellbinding piano intro before leading into a powerful chorus that sees alcohol and its effects rued: “I know when I drink too much I push away the love you have for me”. The subtle presence of a guitar probably also helps the song to become a highlight. Start To Rust begins uninspiringly but somehow shakes off mediocrity to develop into something powerfully solid, most notably through its euphorically anthemic climax. Another simple piano line charged with emotion opens Sharks as singer Steve Bird tells of seeing the sharks circling for the album’s best moment by far, the fervour contained within its epic crescendo is thrilling, perfectly primed for an emotional TV drama soundtrack spot.
After guitarist Sam Jones declared that the song and melody are the most important things, Part Time Spies would appear to be in need of some evidence to back this claim up. Whilst the debut promised so much, this undeniably difficult second album only occasionally manages to reach the same level with style generally outweighing substance as memorable moments struggle to emerge. If they ditch their stop/start love affair with the glitzy ’80s then they may yet still continue to grow, but at this moment in time the future doesn’t look quite as rosy as it did two years ago.