Here it is then*, the album you have all been waiting for: Foreign Talks‘ debut LP. The Portland, Oregon four-piece have delivered a tight, 10-song set that barely breaks 30 minutes in length. Replete with deft instrumentation, four-part harmonies, spacious production that transports us into the breezy open-air, and copious confidence, this is a compelling beginning.
Up until yesterday morning, Foreign Talks was in danger of being wasted in this extended British winter. Then the sun burst over North London. Suddenly I was on a train hurtling through the countryside, no sounds other than the music, a small bag packed heading a long way from town to see good friends, on holidays with adventures in the air, the prospect of sitting outdoors long into the night eating and drinking and making treasured memories, belting out tunes around a campfire with people swapping instruments and singing duties and making drums of saucepans, boxes, bottles, tins, like in (my) days of yore.
That atmosphere of sunlight and open opportunity is abundant: it’s a while since I heard whistling on a record and it’s something that I’ve missed without realising it. It first appears on playful second track “Santa Cruz” which is the sound of freewheeling to who-knows-where. It also reminds me of another set of purveyors of sparkling, wistful indie-pop-rock, Papas Fritas.
Standout tracks include “The Spell”, which has been around (in a rough and raucous live take) on youtube since October 2011, “Falling Leaves” and “Stay the Same”. Have a listen for yourselves.
The band’s own press release invokes Local Natives, whose “Gorilla Manor” has been on and off my ipod for the last two or three years. You can hear some of that on “The Spell”, my personal favourite, in the willingness to go off the beaten track with percussion and drums (any body part, any item seemingly fair game), the strongly rhythmic guitars and the harmonising. Sure there’s something familiar here, but when it’s this lovely, where’s the problem ?
In “Falling Leaves” an excellently bouncy bass line and perky guitar melody combine before sudden harmonising on the “dream girl” chorus delights. And then, on the beautifully put-together “Stay the Same”, the acoustic guitar lushly underpins an achingly pretty lead guitar. You don’t find yourself wondering at the lines “I’ve been around the world enough times to know/That you cannot stay/Stay the same” even though the eldest of the players is 19. These three songs are rich evidence of the songwriting ability that this band already has at its disposal.
For all the sunlight, charm and sweetness of this record, if I hear the lyrics a-right, then there is some darkness here. On opener “Denial” where the narrator ends their words to the “good girl” with the line “I ain’t ever tryin’ to mess this up again” you wonder what misbehaviour he’s covering up, particularly when he opens the song saying “I didn’t wanna have to be the one to show you this side of the world” and “You’re fallin’ in deep/You’re fallin’ into all of my games”. It’s tempting to try and read a great deal into the tracks in the middle of the album, “Years From Now” and “Mama”. Both songs explore conflict at the heart of the family – whether the nagging expectations of parents or the defiance of youth in the face of pigeonholing. The latter is the more potent with its promises of “Mama when I grow tall/I’ll be back here to save us all”, and pointed ripostes to Dad and his desire to see his son playing football. And at the end of all that the threatening “All i need is one phone call”. Who to ? His lawyer because he’s wreaked that promised retribution, or someone he knows who can sort this out for him ?
There are some bum notes on this record, where, for all the enthusiasm, experimentation, exuberance and invincibility of youth on display it is also clear that this is a band still finding its voice. “NW Wonka” is a whole song where the radar goes wonky, but elsewhere it is small moments when they lapse into mannerisms or flourishes that really don’t sit with the overall atmosphere. Conflict or contrast can be powerful, but in “NW Wonka” the rapping/scratching comes to the fore, and feels so strongly at odds with the singing that the end result is messy.
None of that really detracts from the whole – this is an album whose flaws are fleeting and whose charms are many: having flirted with you once, you want another half-hour in its company, and then another… This could be the start of something good.
*um, it’s not actually out until April 16…