The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Dutch Uncles
O Shudder Will Cook , March 10th, 2015 16:03

At some point in the 1960s popular music began to fold in on itself, its creators separated broadly into two camps; those that made music they loved, and those that studied music they liked and learned how to recreate it. As this separation occurred, issues of legitimacy and creative motivation were introduced to conversations that once talked only of sound and style, bringing with them elements of doubt and distrust. The change of emphasis towards what was perceived as authenticity meant that musicians, commentators and fans began to define themselves by their differences. Accusations of populism and parroting became commonplace and anyone late to a party was greeted with scrutiny.

As time cycled through generations of scenes, styles and fashions, as technology changed the landscape around those lines in the sand irredeemably, that attitude has remained. Along with the impossible expectation that music should not appear to be informed or derived by other music. Like there is shame in committing, or indeed teaching yourself, to be something that you want to be. The media perpetuated these outdated modes of thought, redefining pretension as a derogatory classist term when it fit into their narrative, as if pretension isn't intrinsically linked to aspiration, and aspiration isn't really the underlying proponent of all creative endeavour. The perception that there is even a line to cross remains, so when you describe O Shudder as "intelligent, eighties infused pop", you can almost hear teeth grinding in the distance. 

The truth is, those with bloody gums may not be able to distinguish Dutch Uncles from the masses; the glossy and sexless, the post-Metronomy indie-disco shades of Bombay Bicycle beige. The impulse to lump together these bands for derision is misplaced. You should not find yourself upset that a band derives its sound from something that already exists, it's 2015, it's already happened, just be angry if they have nothing to say. Get mad if they do not take the opportunity to speak to people with the music they choose to create. 

Which is something that Dutch Uncles could be accused of up to now, choosing to tie listeners into knots with obscure references, with lyrical riddles and metaphors that can be easily be mistaken for nothingness rather than analysis. The band have talked about taking a more straight forward approach on this album, a change which is noticeable, but instead of dumbing down they have managed to find the perfect distance between themselves and the audience. In fact, it's only when they really try to be straight forward, on songs like 'In N Out' that they miss the target. 

To a large extent, that distance is determined by Duncan Wallis, how he chooses to enunciate his words, how his voice has added prominence within the mix, how certain words are allowed to play against the music to conceal or change the meaning of a sentence as a whole, a trick they play to great effect in 'Drips'. At this point in their career, lyrical dexterity serves only to delay gratification through multiple listens, instead of hiding the point entirely, as was the case on previous albums.

Whether that change is a result of maturity, the benefit of experience, or a conscious choice that they made is irrelevant. O Shudder shows what can happen when a band has the chance to develop. Over the course of their four albums the gaps have been filled, they've gone to great lengths with producer Brendan Williams to secure the smoothest of sounds, the clashes have been corrected, the conflict resolved. It is less urgent, but smaller movements have been made more effective with confidence. 

The central pulsing point of each song is no longer the guitars or the drums, they've added depth and subtlety to their songwriting, and the intricacies of it have replaced jerky time signatures as the new math. Their intelligence lies in the formative heartbeat forcing each idea to propel towards fruition, how they use little staccato motifs to counterpoint legato melodies, it's the interplay between these two techniques that often finds the band at their most enthralling. Even when it feels simpler, or more obvious, as exemplified in 'Decided Knowledge'. This propulsion is led by an ever switching cast of vocals, synths, bass and strings, each taking a turn to carry the ideas forward. Listen to 'Given Thing' or 'Tidal Weight', two of the more poignant songs on the album, and it is the source of their engaging charm.

In 'Upsilon' they use the heaviest bass drum they've committed to tape, its robotic dance beat provides a stable base to float grandiose ideas upon. When they strip back to bass and drums in the middle eight, building from the same foundation in a different direction, you realise how skilled they have become as songwriters. It's only occasionally that they allow the tension to be released in such a conventional way. The seemingly natural flow of the music mirrors the lyrics, as soon as the song finally spirals from its axis and loses momentum, it suddenly snaps back together to further emphasise the point. 

Whilst the album sounds confident and assured, its lyrical themes are built around questions, without ever proposing answers. Personal doubt plays off against societal expectation, desires and concerns meet those of the people closest to you. Each song covers a different facet of modern life, or life at least for those old enough to be comfortable making their own mistakes, those growing used to living without a safety net.

They've managed to operate as a cottage industry by being a real album's band – not great at singles – but perhaps one giant chorus away from careering into popularity, one flawless rising singalong from grasping a firm place in our nations collective hearts and a lengthy comfortable existence. The awkward truth is that the band have worked themselves into something of a paradox. The reason most people give for liking them is the same reason most people give for disliking them. They've found themselves fighting for recognition by presenting studied, meticulous and flawless music to a niche sphere of consumers who have been moulded to the core to sneer and scrutinise, who have been taught the impulse to resent anything intelligently polished and well presented. 

It's naive to think that O Shudder will transform the band into mainstream stars, or that they had any intent to that end when creating it, but it is safe to say that it will win them more fans within their sphere of influence. The album may not be enough to redefine outdated attitudes on it's own, but alongside their peers: Wild Beasts, Everything Everything, Field Music, and as part of a wider movement of British bands challenging those false assumptions, we can but wait in the hope that they will. At the very least, we should be thankful that they're trying.  

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.