I love Alt-J. I’ve got no shame in saying that, when I bought their debut in May and reviewed it I said it was going to be album of the year, and so far nothing else has come along to prove me wrong. A nomination for The Mercury Music Award, awarded tonight, and being the odds-on favourite with comparisons to Radiohead (something that’s pissing of the band – all of whom are massive Radiohead fans) makes this into a pretty damn good year for the Leeds/Cambridgeshire quartet. They’ve been so successful they’ve even managed to get a mauling from the hipster army at Pitchfork, and if that isn’t a sign of how good they are, I don’t know what is.
The problem with this success, is just what the hell do they do now? Let’s say they, like a band I compared them to, The XX, win the Mercury Prize tonight, can they do what they did and retreat into the shadows and then emerge years later with a refined, built up sound and retain that fanbase that saw The XX score a number one album with Coexist?
The key to that question lies in the non-album tracks that Alt-J have released. They’ve been pretty sneaky about not doing any b-sides but the internet has uncovered a couple tracks. They played a song called ‘353′ on one of their earliest BBC Introducing session, and it sounds kinda… bad, at least until it picks up midway through. It’s clear why they dropped it before the album, with elements of later successes, ‘Breezeblocks’ and ‘Bloodflood’. It’s hard to know anything about the much rumoured track ‘Hiroshima’ only exists as a minute long live recording from when – FUN FACT – the band were known as Daljit Dhaliwal who – FUN FACT – is a news presenter on Al-Jazeera. They later – FUN FACT – changed their name to FILMS, which leads us to the song called ‘Portrait’ which they recorded under the FILMS moniker. It’s the most proto-alt-J recording out there, with a far greater rock influence, at times sounding almost Kings of Leon-y, but it just isn’t in the same league as any of the songs on An Awesome Wave. FUN FACT – They were later forced to drop the name FILMS due to copyright issues with an American punk band of the same name.
The best indication of what Alt-J can, and should, do next comes from the song ‘Leon’. Whereas ‘Portrait’ took from modern rock, this goes a little further back into new wave and post-punk, which make it stand out more than any other song Alt-J have abandoned. In a way it’s the flipside to ‘Matilda’, the lyrics are taken from the same film, Leon. It’s also developed very well, but it’s elements are not simply early versions of techniques used on An Awesome Wave.
There’s no doubt that the second album will be incredibly hard to pull off with the weight of the first. The biggest guess I can make is that Alt-J will take a more rock or pop/rock angle on their music. This should be no bad thing, if ‘Leon’ is an appropriate marker for what that should sound like. With tracks as left-field as ‘Taro’ (whose near-sitar sound is actually a roll of electrical tape fingertapping the guitar neck) or the insane ‘Fitzpleasure’, that draws from the dubsteppier edges of electronica, it’s fair to say that what they would do with a rock influence could be just as interesting as they way they used folk and choral music on the album.
FUN FACT – Singer Joe and drummer Thom used to be in a threepiece art collective called Spoonerisms.
The other major issue facing Alt-J at the moment is performing live. Having seen them at Reading in a packed out tent, despite an amazing crowd, it was a tad underwhelming. With music as layerd and complicated as theirs, it’s easy to see why they would struggle. They play to a click, and constantly have to be creating the different sounds so it can feel fry and un-energetic, as my co-writer was at pains to point out. However, seeing their performance of ‘Something Good’ on Later with Jools last week buoyed my expectations as it seems finally they stepped up to the challenge of making the songs more than their album versions.
The danger comes if they can’t get the full sound of the record. There are versions of ‘Taro’ and ‘Tessellate’ that are hugely boosted by the appearance of guest musicians, be they strings or choirs and this is something Alt-J could really explore more to enhance what they are doing. This does seem to be something they are pushing at the moment with the performance of ‘Tessellate’ on Jools and the recent surfacing of performances of a mash-up of ‘Still D.R.E.’ by Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre and Kylie Minogue’s ‘Slow’. It’s weird, it works and it’s something no other band could pull off at all. (There’s a more polished version here) It’s a sign that the band are properly performing to entertain.
Whether or not you are a fan of Alt-J you have to admire why their success is such a good sign. They are clearly a weird band, their influences are wider than any band around at the moment and their music is so strange as a result. The fact that so many people are fans of this album shows not only that the public is fully prepared to embrace music beyond pop-by-numbers or AOR that labels insist is the only thing viable, but also that albums that aren’t single-heavy can be successful. No song on An Awesome Wave is any kind of anthem or hit, ‘Breezeblocks’ may have got the most airplay but ‘Tessellate’ stands up as the best condensing of the ‘Alt-J Sound’, ‘Matilda’ got respect for being a great emotional piece while ‘Dissolve Me’ is the clear fan-favourite despite being album only.
If Alt-J do win the Mercury Prize tonight (and if they do I’d £30 quid richer thanks to Ladbrokes), it should take this even further, in the way the award did for The XX or PJ Harvey’s album last year (one of my albums of the year). So I’ll leave you with a gig they did for KEXP which has been fully recorded in HD where they the entire album except for the only song that I don’t think is amazing, ‘Ms.’ Good luck Alt-J.