Dutch Uncles - Big Balloon

by Jon Burke Rating:5 Release Date:2017-02-17

Big Balloon, the latest from Marple’s own Dutch Uncles, immediately recalls the sounds of a litany of celebrated indie pop acts ranging from XTC to Stereolab and even Oingo Boingo. Unfortunately, though the similarities are numerous, Dutch Uncles squander their musical progenitors’ cache with a toothless, generic, “indie” record. The sensation of listening to Big Balloon is akin to living the idiom ‘in one ear and out the other’ – to the point I had to listen to this record no less than four times to even find a direction for this review. I will not crucify Dutch Uncles for the crimes of their fellow vanilla alternative pop acts but, as Soundblab editor Bob Coyne recently pointed out, "We desperately need another punk rock or acid house moment.” Few records in recent memory make his point more apparent than Big Balloon.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Dutch Uncles. The band is comprised of some very talented musicians and their polish and sonic rapport is admirable. In terms of the record itself, Big Balloon is flawless; truly a perfect production highlighting the band’s best assets, bass and keys. Unfortunately the perfection also uncovers the Uncles’ weak spots, namely Duncan Wallis’ vocals and an overall sound slightly too derivative to be unique and not quite edgy enough to be interesting. There is no grit and little soul to be found on Big Balloon and the end result is a lot like driving a BMW with a golf cart engine, it goes but it feels like it should be going much better.

Throughout the history of recorded music there have been vocalists with androgynous voices. Acts like the Lower Dens, Suicide, Anohni and Nina Simone have all been, at times, sexually ambiguous on record. With that said, all of those musicians had teeth or soul or an edge. Duncan Wallis seems to lack all of the above on Big Balloon and sings casually, reminiscent of singing in the shower, as if there were no stakes and nothing mattered. In the meantime, Robin Richards is playing incredibly catchy, complex basslines as if his life depended on it. It’s one thing to have a vocal style, it’s another thing altogether to not give a shit and that is how Wallis comes across throughout all of Big Balloon – like he was checking his phone every couple of minutes in the recording booth. Wallis’ vocals would be incredible as a back-up or harmonizing vocal but as a front person, there’s much left to be desired.

Moments of greatness are peppered throughout Big Balloon. The album’s titular opener for example is a bouncy little piece of pop fluff which again highlights Robin Richards’ bass talent above all else. “Baskin’” is an off-tempo jam that chugs along at a steady clip until about two minutes in when it dissolves into some very interesting strings and then bursts out with a charging race to the finish beat. “Same Plane Dream” is awash in some lovely, soaring keyboards. “Hiccup” is an angular, groove-heavy, tune that actually works quite well for Dutch Uncles and may be the best pop tune on the whole album. “Sink” has some interesting electronic sounds underneath the beat presenting a missed opportunity at something much bigger than “Sink” ends up being. “Overton”, the album’s final track, is a beautiful bit of melodrama that works quite well with Wallis’ vocal style and reveals the enormous possibilities of Dutch Uncles when they actually play to everyone’s strengths. “Overton’s” twisting conclusion so frustratingly good that one wishes the Uncles would scrap the rest of Big Balloon and start over with “Overton” in mind.

Frustrations abound on Big Balloon and throughout indie pop in general. A Dutch uncle is supposed to admonish others into better behavior. Unfortunately these Dutch Uncles seem to be encouraging the kind of lazy pop that inhabits nearly every festival one attends these days. If you’re looking for how this all could have gone so much better, or just need a palate cleanser, wait a couple weeks for the new Clap Your Hands Say Yeah record and bask in the beauty of a soulful, gorgeous piece of interesting indie pop. It won’t leave you frustrated and disappointed in the overall shit state of new music.

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