Album Review: Glass Animals – Zaba

By on Tuesday, 3rd June 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

Glass Animals are releasing their debut album next week on Wolf Tone, legendary producer Paul Epworth’s new label. As one of the label’s first signings, there’s palpable pressure in the air for the Oxford band live up to their label boss’s past massive successes (hello, Adele‘s ‘Skyfall’ and its many awards). But a better touchstone to use for the purpose of this review is a band Epworth produced several hit singles for some years ago, Friendly Fires.

Upon seeing them live for the first time in Washington, I thought the St. Albans trio were the most exciting, inventive electro dance band to come along in a long while. While ‘Zaba’ is definitely unique, it shares several key traits with ‘Friendly Fires’ that made it a great album to me back in 2008: interminable soul, an essence of funk and a knowing slickness one would not expect from such a young band. Even better, this entry from Glass Animals has beguiling lyrics too. That’s not something you can say about most dance albums. Score! Drummer Joe Seaward described the album to me last month as “…braver, bolder, and more confident” than the previous releases described by our Martin in his Bands to Watch feature on them last year, which is a good description of the results.

A glance through of features on the band around the blogosphere, you will notice that frontman Dave Bayley is reticent on the subject of his lyrics, even going so far as telling The Line of Best Fit’s Huw Oliver, “…I don’t want to ruin it like that for other people, just in case there’s some weirdo out there who’s come up with some kind of personal meaning to it”. Okay, so this ‘weirdo’ is going to bite. While ‘Zaba’ is full of esoteric and sometimes silly lyrics, I think I’ve managed to glean several song themes that will hopefully make it easier for those of you who might otherwise find the album hard to digest. And if you can wrap your head around the sometimes intellectual, sometimes sleazy but always entertaining lyrics, you will be rewarded.

First though, let’s talk about the instrumentation, shall we? Rhythmically, ‘Zaba’ is a wonder, with conventional drums and bass augmented brilliantly with a slew of electronic beats played live by multi-instrumentalists Drew MacFarlane (MacFarlane? hmm, that’s interesting…) and Ed Irwin-Singer and drummer Seaward. This means the band is already making a compelling sound even before Bayley has uttered a single note, described well in a quote from Bayley in the album’s press release: “The sound of the record is like a backdrop of man-made wilderness…”

Incredible attention to detail by way of jungle sounds – birds chirping and their ensuing echoes, the scratchings of other animals, water dripping, the crunch of leaves as they rustle, the not quite stillness of an idyllic hideaway – have all been added, lovingly, to the atmosphere. If you’re listening to the album on headphones with the lights off in your bedroom, you could successfully trick yourself into thinking you’re actually in the rainforest. (I did.) In that respect, the band have done well by the album title’s inspiration, children’s book The Zabajaba Jungle by William Steig that Bayley points out as one of the album’s influences. At the midpoint of the album is ‘Intruxx’, the closest Glass Animals gets to an instrumental on here; the tune is shrouded in the musical layers they’ve woven together here and sounds, amazingly, like something from another world.

In current single and standout track ‘Pools’, the intoxicating dance beats serve to mirror the theme of the song: the intoxicating feeling of falling in love. It’s easy to get swept up in the percussive nature of Bayley’s mostly one, some two syllable lyrics (“I smile because I want to / I am your boy”) and the equally addictive tropical rhythms led by joyful marimba. It’s also smart: who wouldn’t want to sing along and dance to a song this fun? ‘Walla Walla’ and ‘Wyrd’ gives one the feeling of being inside a carnival machine: wicked beats and loads of things to appeal to the senses.

True to its name, 2013 single ‘Black Mambo’ slithers around every turn, its sinister guitar strums and too sweet to be true notes as hypnotising as a snake charmer. As I saw the manic crowd become mesmerised to the song and Bayley’s sultry vocal delivery of it at Liverpool Sound City this year, I fell under the song’s spell and sensed that yes, Glass Animals are going to do extremely well in America. Their sound is urban and soulful enough to get mainstream airplay here, and when they do get on our airwaves, agree with me, it’ll be a coup to get a song about a sloth talking to a mole on commercial radio, won’t it?

Admittedly, I thought from the words of previous single ‘Gooey’ (read Carrie’s review of its EP here) – “you just wanna know those peanut butter vibes” – that this all was a joke when I heard it months ago. I just couldn’t take it seriously and would laugh every time it came on 6music. (When I met and interviewed Bayley and Seaward in Liverpool last month, I just had to ask about the line, to which Bayley quipped in response, “it made sense! It makes sense in my head. But some weird things make sense in my head!”) But apparently I was right in some regard: when pressed by Australia’s Vulture Magazine earlier this year, Bayley explained it as “about youth and naïvety and childishness”. Phew. (Though to be fair, I assumed the lyrics “I can’t take this place / no I can’t take this place / I just wanna go where I can get some space” spoke less of naïvety and more of escapism.)

XFM recently asked children aged 10 or younger to provide their own reviews of ‘Pools’. When was the last time you heard a song ever possibly being described as “…sounds like an ice cream, melting on the seaside” or “it sounds like a rabbit dancing in my garden”? When was the last time you heard a pop song being described like this and you weren’t embarrassed? But lest you think the band is less than serious about what they’re doing, just watching the band perform the song for Australian radio station triple j and lay down the ethereal beats live is quite instructive, giving you a better appreciation of what electronic artists do in the live setting, especially if you’re not an electronic fan. (Want more? We went positively gaga over their cover of Kanye West’s ‘Love Lockdown’, also recorded in Oz.)

The colourful nature of the music and accompanying fanciful album art by American illustrator Micah Lidberg may peg them as lovable psychedelic electro nerds, but there is no escaping that the band members’ love for hip hop since childhood has informed the overall vibe of ‘Zaba’. Having grown up with yet not relating at all to gangsta rap and its recurrent themes of misogyny and violence, it’s refreshing for me to listen to an album that is every bit as sonically arresting as some of the groovier, more melodic moments in rap, hip hop and r&b (Blackstreet’s ‘No Diggity’, Tupac’s ‘California Love’) and also enjoy the lyrics without wincing.

Album opener ‘Flip’ confronts fear and the feeling of being trapped via anticipatory slow build-up, while an impressive coolness comes off the finger snaps and the chill of Bayley’s falsetto flow in the exemplary earworm ‘Hazey’; if the latter isn’t chosen for a single release, I’ll be very disappointed. The only shortcomings to ‘Zaba’ are the last two tracks: ‘Cocoa Hooves’ was released previously as part of another EP and its immaturity comes through when compared to the more forward-thinking tracks included on the album, and the jungle vibe appears to have been lost on ‘JDNT’, feeling out of place. But seriously though, after getting all thoroughly vibed up and in the mood in the first nine tracks, who’s counting?

There is a sleekness and smoothness to ‘Zaba’, which is all the more awe-inspiring once you learn Paul Epworth provided executive, not heavy-duty lifting on the production of Glass Animals’ debut album, allowing the band pretty much free reign in the studio to do as they pleased. If this polished sound is what the band sounds like now, then we can only expect greater things from their future releases. ‘Zaba’ is a beautiful escape from our urban wasteland: a worthy respite where you can expand your mind through sound and soulful vocals and feel that much freer.

8/10

‘Zaba’, the debut album from Oxford’s Glass Animals, is out next Monday (9 June) on Paul Epworth’s new label Wolf Tone. Before embarking on their first headline tour of America in July, the band have a short UK tour beginning on the 14th of June in Cardiff, and just last Friday, they announced an intimate show at home at Oxford Jericho Tavern for the 26th. They will also be playing a free lunchtime in-store at London’s Rough Trade East on 13 June right before the UK tour begins.

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[…] turn of events, Dave spells out generally what their last single ‘Hazey’, from their Wolftone debut album ‘Zaba’, means in the press sheet for the release. I imagine someone in their inner circle suggested he […]

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