If you were in any doubt that summer has officially arrived, throw on your best open-toed dancing shoes and pick yourself up a copy of Friendly Fires’ “Pala”. That quote right there has been approved for use in any press blurbs about the band you might read. Seriously though, straight off the tropical bird on the album cover and a track titled “Hawaiian Air” you can get a fantastic idea of what the record is going to sound like without even hearing a single note of it. All the better if you’re familiar with Friendly Fires’ 2008 self-titled debut album, which was so rich in dancefloor goodness that it took the band on multiple world tours and required a deluxe edition re-release to help out the new fans and keep the old ones baited with extras to bide the time until a follow-up was ready. Now it is, and “Pala” is in every way an evolotion from where the band was 3 years ago, adding more influences and sounds, not to mention sheer energy to a fire that was already burning pretty strong.
There’s a moment right before the first time through chorus on “Pala”‘s opening track “Live Those Days Tonight” where the beat largely drops out, things go relatively quiet, and somebody whispers, “Don’t hold back” a handful of times. As if pushed by those words of encouragement, the chorus then explodes to life with both some huge percussion and a hook that is more than addictive enough to stay in your head after only one full listen. That’s not even counting the bridge breakdown, where the chanting of “I’ll live” builds to yet another cathartic release of endorphins in case the first time wasn’t enough for you. Even more incredible is how the band is able to dish out variations on that same strategy across the entire record, keeping your feet moving during the verses and then achieving these blissfully anthemic and catchy choruses to keep you coming back. Producer Paul Epworth deserves at least some of the credit for pushing the band to these more advanced levels in which they owe as much to the dance rock craze of several years ago as they do to modern techno and house music. Epworth’s past resume includes working on key records from Bloc Party and The Rapture, so his fit here is a natural one even if he does tend to make a lot of albums sound super squeaky clean to the point where it’s unnatural. “Pala” suffers that same fate, but the light and airy nature of the record makes it a lot like the audio version of a huge blockbuster film – it’s great to put it on and have some fun without the pressure of thinking too much.
Close analysis of “Pala” is largely what might affect your enjoyment of it as a whole, because while it is an immensely fun dance record, there’s not exactly brilliance behind some of the lyrics and subject matter. The choruses are supposed to be memorable and therefore economical on words, but the verses are where the exposition is supposed to take place. That’s why lines like, “Seeing the mountains through the fog/Watching a film with a talking dog” on “Hawaiian Air” come across as poorly constructed and only existing to achieve a rhyme scheme. The topics as well are overly familiar ones, with almost every song either being about the ups and downs of love (“True Love”, “Hurting”, “Running Away”, “Pull Me Back to Earth”), the best and worst parts of the dancefloor (“Live Those Days Tonight”, “Show Me Lights”) and the sheer beauty of nature (“Hawaiian Air”, “Pala”). LCD Soundsystem, among other acts, proved that you can pretty seamlessly blend dance tracks with words that are genuine, emotionally significant and smart. Of course there are also no indications the band is looking to do a whole lot beyond getting you moving and providing you with something easy to sing along with. In an ideal world, “Pala” would be both, but when choosing between smart and fun, fun is by far the better choice for a band like this.
The different sounds explored on “Pala” is one of the more exciting things about the record and also further proof that they’ve made significant advancements since their last effort. With chillwave all the rage these last couple years, there are brief nods to those sounds, which largely ape lo-fi dance recordings from the 70s and 80s, on tracks like “Blue Cassette” and “Hurting”. The way that actual cassette tape noises such as the high-pitched squeal of rewinding and the click of the “play” button are worked into the context of “Blue Cassette” is particularly well played and impressive. Meanwhile, the strong mixture of synths and piano in conjunction with a vast array of beats on “Running Away” and “Chimes” bring to mind some of the more Balearic elements of today’s club scene. “Show Me Lights” is very 90s R&B in its construction, with frontman Ed Macfarlane’s voice sounding like it was forged in those same fires anyways. You might also think that R. Kelly would be proud of the album’s only ballad, the title track “Pala”, which is smooth as glass matched with the sort of slow clap beat you can make some serious love to. The funky bass and synths of “True Love” feel ripped straight from the Talking Heads, which is a delight. And the Afrobeat bits of “Pull Me Back to Earth” have plenty of charm to go around as well. This sort of diversity is absolutely a sign of growth, and while each track is great individually, together the entire record can appear to be a little scatterbrained and unfocused. So long as you keep your eye on the prize of just generally enjoying your listening experience though, it’s a problem that ultimately feels minimal.
“Pala” is a party record through and through, one ideal for the warm months where you can loosen up and have some fun outside. It is, by all accounts, tropical and exotic too, an auditory vacation where you’re not bogged down with the stress of work and everyday life and can just enjoy relaxing by a beautiful body of water. You should treat it as such too, because the more you study it the more its flaws become apparent. Turn your brain off and put your dancing shoes on. It might not be as amazing as Cut Copy’s latest “Zonoscope”, but the two records have a lot in common with one another. There are also so many “big” songs on “Pala” that it’s practically begging to be embraced by hundreds of millions of people. Friendly Fires have been on the steady rise since 2007, and this is in many ways their opus that should launch them into the big time. The songs are crazy addictive and easy enough for even the most hostile crowd to embrace. Give them a few months to build up some more steam and they will take over the world. Hang onto your spotlights ladies and gentlemen, because Friendly Fires are about to steal them. There’s another quote for the next press release.