(SXSW 2016 flavoured!) Album Review: The Dunwells – Light Up the Sky

By on Friday, 26th February 2016 at 12:00 pm
 

The-Dunwells-Light-Up-The-SkyTo say that The Dunwells’ sophomore studio album ‘Light Up the Sky’ has been “a long time coming” might be a bit of an understatement. That particular lyric turns up repeatedly in the songs on the album, and the songs themselves have indeed taken their time coming together. Many of these tracks are pulled from the Dunwells’ recent back catalogue, having been released as singles or EP tracks in the interim since the band’s 2012 debut ‘Blind Sighted Faith’.

The Dunwells worked with a string of different producers on ‘Light Up the Sky’, including Kodaline helmsman Steve Harris, Dan McDougall (Aurora) and Manny Marroquin (Haim, Sia and Taylor Swift). Of those, it’s Harris’ influence that rings through most glaringly in the slick pop overlay of many of the songs. ‘Communicate’, which appeared on The Dunwells’ ‘Show Me Emotion’ EP back in 2014, overcomes a thickly layered vocal production to showcase the wide expressive range of frontman Joe Dunwell’s singing voice and Rob Clayton’s solid bass groove. The extended anticipation of ‘Strange Feeling’ starts with an acoustic intro before sweeping into the breathless lyrics “it’s a strange feeling, but it’s sensational.” Gentle keyboard-centered ballad ‘Animal’ feels like it could as easily have been written for Kodaline as the Dunwells, while later track ‘Ghosts’ features a beautifully executed, though conspicuously Steve Garrigan-esque, vocal manoeuvre in the final repeat of the chorus.

The less pop and more rock-oriented moments are the ones that ultimately work best on ‘Light Up the Sky’. Opening track ‘Lucky Ones’, which we featured as a Video of the Moment last spring around its eponymous EP release, is more the kind of propulsively anthemic track I might have expected from the Leeds quartet. Similarly, the driving rhythm and gospel backing vocals of ‘Hey Now’ make a strong and lasting impression, especially in the infectiously singable chorus “I’m not ready to go home yet, but leave me a light, leave me a light on.”

Standout track ‘Hurts’, released as a single just last month, is probably the most lyrically developed and fully conceptualised song on the album, from its opening line “here you are on your knees, trying to offload your grief” to the sympathetic lines of its chorus “when you fade right there in front of me, it hurts sometimes . . . when you fall apart it’s killing me, it hurts sometimes”. The lyrics to subsequent title track ‘Light Up the Sky’ are romantic and deliriously nonsensical, but they make an equally forceful impact, due in no small part to Dunwell’s aching vocal delivery.

[youtube]https://youtu.be/PexcIdRRIAI[/youtube]

The Dunwells have, in the past, gotten away with some cliché lyrics, because they were always delivered with guileless musical arrangements and undeniable emotional sincerity. On ‘Light Up the Sky’, the production sometimes feels heavy-handed, as if trying to conceal the occasional moments where the lyrics are a bit trite or the emotional content is one-dimensional. Such is the case with older live favourite track ‘She Whispers’, whose arrangement here contains some odd instrumental choices that don’t seem to relate to the song itself. For my money, the stripped back version featured in this Live Gig Video was more effective in creating the sense of intimacy implied in the lyrics.

The touch of Steve Harris’ production is felt again in penultimate track ‘The Best is Yet To Come’, which soars seamlessly if rather unexpectedly into the sweet, subdued gospel of ‘Will You Wait for Me’. Though the latter is a song about loss and mourning, the Dunwells have here refined their propensity for building a chorus, turning it into a gently soulful, genuinely uplifting reaffirmation of life.

In the end, I found ‘Light Up the Sky’ to be mildly underwhelming, not because it’s a bad album, but because it leaves the impression of having transformed the Dunwells, who are a fine alt-rock band in their own right, into a pale imitation of a mainstream pop band. And though I like Kodaline enough, I much prefer the Dunwells, especially when they sound like, well, the Dunwells.

7/10

The Dunwells’ second album ‘Light Up the Sky’ is out today, the 26th of February, on Decca Records (UK) / Modal Music Limited (US) / Concord. The Dunwells are scheduled to appear next month at SXSW 2016 and will embark on a tour of the UK in April.

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