New Band of the Day: Alt-J

This Cambridge four-piece not only write clever music and boast more references than a jobs agency, they’ve also set tongues wagging with their rapturously received first album.

Hometown: Cambridge.

The lineup: Joe Newman (vocals), Gwil Sainsbury (bass) Thom Green (drums), Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboards, backing vocals).

The background: Alt-J, who met at Leeds University and have, since graduating, been living and recording in a basement in Cambridge, are named after the Mac keyboard command for the “delta” sign, which in itself intrigued us when we first heard about the four-piece. But not enough to warrant the full 600-word New Band of the Day treatment. No, what swung it for us was their debut album, An Awesome Wave, which has been rapturously received. It was the rapturous reception rather than the album that did the swinging, to be honest.

The reactions really have been over-the-top and excitable, even at a time when there are a lot of voices hyping loudly to be heard. Reviews have spoken of the band’s “innovative and electrifying musicianship”, their “exemplary songwriting”, “creatively ambitious lyrics” and “captivating blend of insatiable grooves and profound poignancy”. They have proclaimed the music “jaw-droppingly different from the norm” and have variously hailed the album “immensely powerful” and “heartbreakingly wonderful”, concluding that it is “one of the most magnificent debuts in recent memory”. What, better than Different Gear, Still Speeding?

There have even been comparisons to Radiohead. This is interesting, because these days we think of Radiohead as a largely electronic unit, yet Alt-J employ enough non-electronic instruments (the drummer, for example, uses a saucepan instead of a cymbal) for it to be appropriate to think of them as, in a way, a modern folk band. Others have drawn parallels between An Awesome Wave and the self-titled debut by the xx because, as Clash magazine said: “It is too complete and rounded to ever be [considered] a debut.” Which means, we think, there is a quality of accomplishment that they share with the xx. But more than that, there is an approach to rhythm and arrangement that suggests an olde worlde take on dubstep, trip-hop and electronica, as though Fairport Convention had been fast-forwarded to FWD>>.

Even if you remain indifferent about the album, as we do, you can easily see why people are going to like it and spend time seeking out the meanings and motives behind the songs. Luckily, the band were on hand to help with capsule explanations. ‘Something Good’ is about “the death of a matador as an analogy for the slow mending of a broken heart through fun distractions”. Tessellate apparently concerns “the lingering of an old flame”, but they’re fooling no one – it’s about sex. ‘Breezeblocks’ is based on the late Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. ‘M∆tilda’ – spelt with an Alt-J – references Luc Besson’s film Léon and is “fuelled by the shared demise of both the protagonist and antagonist”. ‘Fitzpleasure’ is based on a chapter in Hubert Selby Jr’s book Last Exit to Brooklyn, and ‘Taro’ tells the tale of two war photographers and lovers, Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, homing in on Capa’s last moments before and after his foot hits a land mine.

The music is rich and quirky enough to match the imagistic literacy of the lyrics, from the majestic, cinematic sweep of Intro onwards. Breezeblocks is the sort of idiosyncratic indie we’d imagine bands we’ve never heard such as Swell Maps or Arab Strap would have purveyed, affirming that there are quixotic imaginations at work here. It’s very John Peel – the Peel of any time, any decade, since 1978. On ‘Something Good’, the beat skitters like dubstep, and yet the vocals and the guitar picking reek of folk. On ‘Dissolve Me’, Joe Newman’s vocals telegraph that these songs will not be addressing the usual rock’n’roll concerns. On ‘M∆tilda’ the melody creeps up on you, “creepy” being the operative word for such oddly unnerving music. ‘Ms’ is almost hymnal – smells like Benedictine spirit – as though Alt-J have taken refuge from reality and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in that Cambridge basement of theirs. ‘Bloodflood’, about being flooded with fear, is the one featuring the album title, suggesting that this is a record about being engulfed by events and emotions. They almost go out of their way to avoid the obvious, but eventually the melodies – and the meanings – emerge.

The buzz: “Alt-J are about as far away from your typical rock band as it’s possible to get.” – FMV Magazine.

The truth: This is clever and kooky music, but obviously miles from the Kooks.

Most likely to: Inundate you with film and literature references.

Least likely to: Tessellate wildly.

What to buy: An Awesome Wave is out now.

File next to: James, Foals, Fairport Convention, Wild Beasts.

© Paul LesterThe Guardian, 24 May 2012

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