The dreaded second album, graveyard to many a ‘next big thing’. Behind the crumbling headstone inscribed with the words ‘Kula Shaker’ and mere meters from the decaying bones of ‘The Vines’ sits another plot, gaping wide and awaiting the latest tortured soul who will shuffle through the gates and be laid to rest a top his vintage Les Paul - ‘take off your rock star shades boys, the sun doesn’t shine here!’
It’s not difficult to work out why so many hopefuls stumble at the second hurdle. Having had as long as they so desire to craft and prep a debut release, they’re suddenly thrust into a world of time limits and expectation. Self doubt tells you that anyone can get lucky once but if you want a real legacy you need to deliver again, and this time the ears of the world will be listening intently - the pressure is on....
......except in this instance apparently it’s not. Pressure? What pressure!! It would seem that any graves Friendly Fires cross paths with are going to be cheerfully danced upon!
Two and half years on from their first LP, the two Ed’s and Jack have returned with brand new record ‘Pala’ and any worries of paralysis by second album syndrome can be dispelled straight away. Rather than being constrained by the critical and commercial success of their eponymous debut, Friendly Fires have embraced the opportunities being ‘hot’ afforded them and comeback with the shackles off, liberated and vindicated. Not that this should come as a surprise, anyone who witnessed their exuberant live performances, read their genuinely funny mailing list updates or watched the excitable video blogs they sent from Latin America, could see that this was a band having a blast, and that wave of positivity and spirit of adventure was bound to roll on into their new material.
Indeed a prior pointer to how their sound and mentality was evolving came in the form of 2009’s stand alone single ‘Kiss Of Life’, with its samba rhythms and sunny disposition, and ‘Pala’ picks up where that track left off, with vibrancy and fun very much the order of the day - the boys are having a party and we’re all invited,
This new emphasis is clear before you even press play on the stereo. While the debut LP and its subsequent singles made little impression with their grey and black artwork, Pala proudly struts its feathers, resplendent in bold primary colours. Ultimately though that means little without the tunes to back it up, so what of them?
WARNING : This video contains flashing images (that's strobe lights, not naked men in raincoats)
‘Live Those Days Tonight’ kicks things off and is a perfect opener. Infused with the spirit of acid house it lays down what this album is all about, namely supersizing the sound of the first record with cacophonous drums and a series of euphoric, hands in the air chorus', while the tracks repeated refrain of: ‘don’t hold back’, appears to be part instruction, part statement of intent - and it sounds great! Hot on its heels comes the fantastic ‘Blue Cassette’, a song every bit as dream fuelled and romantic as the band’s early single ‘Paris’. Utilising the same psychadelic swirl that catapulted The Chemical Brothers up the charts it's evocative and anthemic in equal portions.
Elsewhere ‘Hawaiian Air’ and ‘Hurting’ seem to come as a pair, each initially doing a plausible impression of a long lost level from Sonic 2. The former (with it somewhat bizarre lyrics) boasts a soaring chorus, that is brilliantly huge, while the latter comes over like J.Dilla remixing Wham! live on Pigeon Street – yes really! In the middle of the album the title track provides a welcome change of pace with its hypnotic melody, while later the tropical stylings and big beats of 'Show Me Lights' mark it out as a probable future single
The overriding feeling with this album however is that it’s not the individual tracks that shine, but more the piece as a whole – its triumph is in the production. Having crafted the majority of their debut with little outside assistance, the lads this time opted to team up fully with lauded producer Paul Epworth (who they’d previously worked with on ‘Jump In The Pool' and the single version of ‘Skeleton Boy’). Between them they’ve come up with a fuller sound that feels fresh and contemporary and one which at points perhaps covers up for limitations in the basic song structure.
With that in mind It should be pointed out that this isn’t a record without flaws. Lyrically it’s not particularly memorable and on first impression the second half of the album seems to be a little weaker than what has gone before. Final track ‘Helpless’ is an odd choice to round things off - when you might expect the LP to go out in an explosion of enthusiasm and fireworks it instead slips away in fairly low key fashion (although if you buy Pala via I.Tunes it closes with a bonus track, the band’s cracking cover of Depeche Mode’s Strangelove). In addition, with much more prominent pop sensibilities than its predecessor, at times the album wobbles as it tip toes along a tightrope that could see it fall into the realms of cheesy 80’s pop. Thankfully on most occasions it manages to maintain the right balance.Despite those frailties this is still a really engaging and interesting body of music, an LP that can comfortably hold its head up amongst its contemporaries. Admittedly this may not be a record that will stop you dead in your tracks or have you declaring the second coming of your saviours, but you get the impression that for the band this album was one that never had any intention of pitching for 'cool' status or reaffirming indie credibility. Instead Friendly Fires have made the record they want, one that has its heart in the clubs of Ibiza and on the beaches of Rio. Pala wants to be a refreshing burst of unadulterated fun that will soundtrack your summer, and you know what, it's made a pretty fine attempt, so turn it up extra loud, leave your inhibitions at the door, get your groove on, and most importantly - don't hold back!
Pala is available for streaming at the Friendly Fires website here, where you can also pick up a free download of 'Blue Casette'