Release Date: Feb 17, 2017
Record label: Memphis Industries
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Five albums in, unconventional pop band Dutch Uncles have made their most cohesive record yet. Hailing from Manchester in England, the Memphis Industries signing have forged a unique sound since their official debut in 2008. Big Balloon immediately captures the listener's attention via its propulsive energy, as the band reportedly had their live show in mind when writing it. "Baskin" is incredibly energetic, taut bass and drums driving it along.
Like their fellow angular stalwarts Field Music, Dutch Uncles have become a little more accessible over the course of their career. However, on Big Balloon, they remain locked in a tug of war between razor-sharp pop and experimental tangents that, once again, often deliver thrilling results. This time, the band took inspiration from Kate Bush and David Bowie, sometimes directly (the sleek, jittery "Fame" homage "Combo Box") and sometimes more obliquely (the searching, string-laden "Overton," which was sparked by Bowie's passing).
If some cruel person only let you listen to the piano-led melodies of 'Achameleon' or the orchestral manoeuvres of closer 'Overton,' you'd probably end up thinking that Dutch Uncles had produced yet another tightly-crafted pop record. Indeed, if you're used to the band producing tunes heavy with strings and synths, prepare to be surprised: fifth album 'Big Balloon' is something of a trip back into the left-field, tricky rock they were making at the start of the decade. Well, with a few techno flourishes and even more witty lyrics about austerity, therapy, David Bowie's brain and fried chicken (obv) thrown in.
Allowing the right amount of self-awareness into the creative process isn't always easy, but Dutch Uncles have come closer than ever to finding that balance on Big Balloon. In an interview for their last album, O Shudder, singer Duncan Wallis remarked, "It makes me cringe to think we're trying to make a mature statement, but we are. " Their attempted adult turn certainly has adult activities on the brain with songs like "Babymaking", "Drips" and "In n Out", but their fourth album is not an abrupt downshift from Out of Touch In the Wild, which had been a sort of 'second breakthrough' that led to them touring and collaborating with Paramore.
H ere's an alternative to the aggro punk poetry of Sleaford Mods: for their fifth album, Dutch Uncles have captured the cold, industrial grind of being broke and betrayed in austerity Britain. After 2015's O Shudder - an odyssey into awkward sex - the Salford band have shed some of their lithe, shoulder-pad pop for something burlier and with greater intent: inspired by Kate Bush's The Red Shoes, Low-era Bowie and eastern European techno, its songs barge in with urgency: Big Balloon is a song about antidepressants, its wobbling ascent firing out the type of energy that can't be sustained, while Same Plane Dream, a song about benefit cuts, careens in a panic, instruments crammed in like a cluster headache. Beauty lies amid the twitchy paranoia - Streetlight is a moment of elegant Manchester romance, and throughout there are jangly, Marr-style guitars that slice into the darkness like light escaping through the slats of a blind.
There was a time when giants roamed the post-punk landscape, but in 2017 that earth is more barren than ever. While the psych rock and indie fields are flushed with life, the direct line that began with The Pop Group and Gang of Four is, for once, not proving to be as abundantly fruitful. We should be grateful, then, for a band like Dutch Uncles, who have successfully cultivated their own patch, and now harvest their fifth album, Big Balloon.
Manchester four-piece Dutch Uncles make twisty art-rock with a unique style, incorporating elements of prog and Talking Heads-esque post-punk into their sound. 2015's O Shudder was the band's breakout of sorts, easing some of the nervy restlessness of their early less-accessible releases to create catchy anthems without compromising their tendency to experiment with time-signatures and chord changes. From there, Dutch Uncles has moved on to Big Balloon, which sees them trading synths for guitars and catchy melodicism for constantly-moving mini-suites of instrumental complexity.
Dutch Uncles are an odd bunch. Like fellow Mancunians Everything Everything or American counterparts Battles, the four-piece communicate in their own hyper-colourful, idiosyncratic language, and just trying to parse their dense and wildly inventive music can be equal parts thrilling and exhausting. Big Balloon finds them cranking up the tempo and reconnecting their guitars after 2015's largely synth-driven O Shudder, though the result is less a stylistic refresh than a confident reaffirmation of their combined output up until now.
Opening their fifth album with its title track, "Big Balloon" kicks proceedings off with an infectious melody and even catchier chorus. The song drifts to an end as vocalist Duncan Wallis implores you to "make me swoon like a big balloon", knowing perfectly well that's the effect the song's having on all of us. "Combo Box" takes things in a different direction altogether.
Few records surge into focus with the immediacy or intent of Dutch Uncles' latest. An emphatic, bass-driven prog-pop gem, the title track and ultra-confident lead single from their fifth studio album Big Balloon doubles up as a concise blueprint of Greater Manchester's finest shoulder-padded foursome's continued upward trajectory. In much the same way the likes of Field Music and Deerhoof dream up wondrous realms where complexity is usually at the hands of the hook, Dutch Uncles' propensity for warping pop to the outer fringes of possibility has always felt akin to the quest for absolute inimitability.