Dutch Uncles return with a triumphant fifth album, their fourth on the Memphis Industries label and first since 2015’s “O Shudder”. It’s remarkable that the Marple band (Duncan, Pete, Robin and Andy, formerly also Daniel) are still making their delightfully catchy and quirky brand of indie pop which has been labelled as “math pop”, “art rock” and “new prog” but at heart is slick, electronic, retro pop which defies time signatures and classification all at once.
“Big Balloon” packs ten new tracks which showcase the former college friends’ talents to the fore. On the opener and title track, lead singer Duncan’s vocals are winsome and light over Robin’s sometimes dark and angular basslines, whilst Andy and Pete drive everything forward with chugging drums and riffs which are sometimes wistful and rhythmic and elsewhere pack a nostalgic 70s feel, like a slightly faded memory of a children’s TV show of that era. The track soars as its title suggests and then ends just as you want more. Thankfully, the album crashes headlong in to “Baskin’” and 8 other standout tracks. “Baskin’” is more irregular with stabs of guitar, often clashing (deliberately) with the overall feel and vocals which are breathy and alarmed, but overall another excellent 3 ½ minutes, culminating in some dreamy strings.
“Combo Box” is funky little number, part Blaxploitation anthem, part Bowie “Blackstar” jazz explosion. “Achameleon” stays in the jazzy area, with a central piano refrain and some of the band’s deliciously dark signature strings which pluck and sizzle their way through the halfway point of the track. Album closer “Overton” begins in more sombre fashion before breaking out into the more expected awkward jazz with some synthy choral vocal blasts and mind-bending bassline manoeuvres but also manages an outro which begins with a video game-esque driving theme before descending into a darker, more chaotic finale.
“Same Plane Dream” begins with layer upon layer of twiddly detail like a video game end of level boss sequence, before stripping everything back and going into a dream-like 80s chorus. “Hiccup” is similarly in an 80s groove, sounding somewhere between The Police and Duran Duran in its opening, but significantly slightly detuned or off-key, to provide that Dutch Uncles spin with Duncan’s yelping vocals providing a full Kate Bush style element. “Sink” is slightly rockier in parts, but then also lightens up with some marimba-esque oriental vibes over the driving synth backing.
Other singles from the album so far are “Oh Yeah” and “Streetlight” which are both crazy slices of retro synth pop. “Oh Yeah” is “Footloose” levels of upbeat-ness and it’s hard not to hurl oneself about whilst listening to it. The track is bursting with warmth and positivity and before its last minute or so finds time for a bleepy, squelchy middle eight. By contrast, “Streetlight” is like a night-time driving anthem, insistent and cool and deserving of a Nicolas Windng Refn soundtrack inclusion. Both tracks are accomplished and persuasive.
It would be very easy for an experimental band like Dutch Uncles to become pretentious and lose their feel for what makes a decent pop song amidst 5 minute plus self-indulgent opuses, but thankfully that never happens with tracks rarely straying beyond 4 minutes or outstaying their welcome and even among all the atypical time signatures and prog sensibilities, the band never lose sight of how to craft a cracking track.
“Big Balloon” is out on Memphis Industries from Friday 17th February. Order it from iTunes here.