Elizabeth Price, who co-founded influential 1980s indie-pop outfit Talulah Gosh when she was an art student, opens an exhibition of video installations later this month at a London gallery. Using pop music from the Shangri-Las, A-Ha, and others, she has said she hopes to convey an unruly humanity she believes is too often missing from contemporary art. "It's cool, it's measured, it's outside of things, and I think that's a complete delusion," she explained in the latest issue of the Wire, suggesting art should instead relate to our "actual social lives."
That's a useful prism for approaching Allo Darlin', the best new group in recent years from a pop tradition that attempts to counter what its members might perceive as the market-corroded fantasy of corporate pop and the detached insularity of many underground records. Led by Australian-born Elizabeth Morris, who previously played with ex-Talulah Gosh frontwoman Amelia Fletcher in Tender Trap, the London foursome established themselves as worthy heirs to Belle and Sebastian, Camera Obscura, and the Sarah Records roster with their 2010 self-titled debut, all hummable melodies, clap-along rhythms, and poignantly turned phrases. Europe maintains these qualities and improves upon its predecessor in almost every way.
Their second album's title refers to the group's ill-fated van tour through Germany and beyond in 2011, clocking in at five weeks and more than 12,000 miles. From the debt crisis to the broadening, increasingly politicized definition of "Europe," the continent remains as ripe for artistic exploration, but Allo Darlin' filter any subliminal economic malaise through clear-eyed observations of what feel like genuine everyday experiences. Where on their debut it was easy to match up individual songs with their specific historical and cultural inspirations, here the band sounds confidently itself, with any pop-culture references wrapped up naturally into the emotional lives of the characters in the songs.
The songs are richer both instrumentally and lyrically: Strings dress up the breathless title track, and the steel guitar of the debut's "Heartbeat Chilli" returns to lend a bittersweet twang on occasion. But more remarkable is the band's core, which shines brighter than ever. Morris' high, bell-like, lightly accented vocals have gained new assurance, and although her ukulele gets its stripped-down showcases, mostly it's an understated complement to the fluid jangle-pop of guitarist Paul Rains, bassist Bill Botting, and drummer Michael Collins. Collins, especially, has grown more consistent since his first go-round without losing that in-the-moment vitality.
Which is crucial, because dizzying impermanence is what the album simultaneously celebrates and preemptively mourns. Morris' lyrics, her most heartbreaking yet, are at once alive with excitement and shrouded with the knowledge that this, too, is fleeting. From the first verse of cautiously optimistic opener "Neil Armstrong", Europe confesses to yearning for "a simpler time," and while the precocious narrator certainly suffers her bouts of homesickness, what the record is really nostalgic for is the ever-passing present. Morris dreams of her native Australia on sunny first single "Capricornia", and elsewhere she avails herself of snail-mail options for communicating with a faraway romantic interest. But no matter how broken she feels on "Europe", another character is at pinch-me levels of giddiness, telling her, "This is life/ This is living."
That youthful joy blooms throughout the album, and it's contagious. "I have a feeling that this day will be amazing," Morris proclaims unaffectedly on gorgeous, midtempo falling-in-love song "Some People Say". "This is the year we'll make it right," she further declares, on the Lucksmiths-style leap of "Northern Lights". On the Go-Betweens-gone-Beatles-in-Hamburg romp "Wonderland", the world feels like it's "ending," but only "when I'm with you"-- and happily, she doesn't care. Before the rousing call-and-response outro of the boozy "Still Young", Morris warns they shouldn't carry on like this, but you suspect they do anyway. Sure, there are a few lyrical over-reaches, but as with the debut's accelerating tempos, they're a testament to the energy captured here, and to dwell on them would be missing the point.
In Europe's world, pop songs are almost characters in their own right. Melancholy, uke-oriented finale "My Sweet Friend" recalls meeting a friend in the park "on the day a famous pop star died," and talks about how records can accrue extra-musical value through their significance in our lives. "Some People Say" hints at this idea early on, mentioning "the song that to me has a hidden meaning." But on sparse, vividly detailed stunner "Tallulah", run-ins with fortuitously familiar tunes-- Talulah Gosh, the Maytals-- prompt Morris to wonder "if I've already heard all the songs that'll mean something," or worse, "already met all the people that'll mean something." When, on wistful midtempo affair "The Letter" she confides to a Silver Jews obsessive, "What if I told you I was never cool/ And all I wanted was just to have you," there's no need to worry.
- Marc Hogan
Normally if I have been looking forward to something for a long while, when it arrives it rarely lives up to the expectation. 'Europe', the second album by Fortuna POP! label band Allo Darlin' is most definitely the exception to the rule.
Taking all the best bits from their fine debut, singer-songwriter Elizabeth Morris and her trusty cohorts, guitarist Paul Rains, drummer Mike Collins and bassist Bill Botting have created a near perfect follow-up that will not only delight existing fans but should switch on a whole lot more.
Underpinned by Morris' deeply personal lyrics, that have a wonderful knack of drawing the listener in, the bulk of the songs are pure indie-pop that whilst not showing a massive progression from their self-titled debut are all the better for it.
Opening song 'Neil Armstrong' benefits from a warm slice of Americana before recent single 'Capricornia' allows Morris to reminisce about her native Queensland, mixing the finest elements of vintage Go-Betweens and the vocal style of the late Kirsty MacColl to great effect. Indeed the way Morris' lyrics open out into clever tales are very much akin to the Go-Betweens at their fluent best.
The title track, which is also the next single to be lifted from the album, is another perfect pop song that despite being written under the spectre of visa issues for Morris is actually positive and uplifting, while the slower 'Some People Say' is simply a beautiful love song.
The highlight is probably the oldest song on the album. Having being written a couple of years back, 'Tallulah', is the perfect showcase of Morris' songwriting skills and stunning voice as she delivers a heartfelt lyric over the gentle strumming of her ukelele. Memories of Australia are at the fore and the reference to listening to the Go-Betweens seminal album 'Tallulah' in her "old university car" give the song its title.
'The Letter' is only marginally behind it in the quality stakes, but is a guitar driven pop nugget as opposed to the softer 'Tallulah'. The lyric is equally impressive with the intriguing "Taking for granted where we'd been, we found solace in the shattered dreams of England" line in particular.
Very reminiscent of Brighton band the Popguns, 'Still Young' is another rattling pop tune before the calmer 'My Sweet Friend' brings the album to a excellent close.
In the lyrics to 'Tallulah' Morris wonders if she has already heard all the songs that will mean something. If Allo Darlin' continue to produce songs like these on Europe, I for one know that I haven't.
- Dixie Ernill
THE LINE OF BEST FIT
Allo Darlin', for the indiepop crowd that dream of Hefner reunions, follow the Wave Pictures from town to town and salivate over The Understudies' next limited 7 inch single, are something of a last great hope. Their debut back in 2009, while referential in the extreme, mixed clear-eyed antipodean observations of the London scene with cardigan-clad payoff lines and a horn-rimmed wit that sat snug and smiling among its fields of ukelele and minor key guitar notes. Yet to the wider world their material remained somewhat limited by its specificity despite appealing with its pop culture detail – Capital-centric in the extreme, its name-dropping of Johnny Cash, Weezer and Woody Allen couldn't quite save it from the be-sweatered ghetto.
On their second record, Europe, Australian Elizabeth Morris has led her troupe much further afield, both thematically and musically, to create a wonderful, evocative and suddenly magical set of songs that draw their centre from the bittersweet twang of The Go-Betweens, their adornment from a variety of towns, countries and times, their dancing shoes and smarts from the lessons of one too many minor heartbreaks.
Every song here, essayed in a strange and strangely appealing Irish-tinged folk tone by Morris, is a reminiscence, often set in a very specific place – "St. Kilda, Coolangatta and Bondi Beach" ('Tallulah'), "the frozen sea of Sweden" ('The Letter'), "under Capricornia skies" ('Capricornia') – or a specific year, a season – sometimes all three. They share a wide-eyed adventurism, a true sense of romance and a stoic wit that, while not ever particularly original or musically cutting-edge, are uniformly engaging and affecting.
'Northern Lights' is a Robert Forster-style jerk of twee love filled with bright optimism ("This is the year we'll make it right/Jump feet first through the snow/We're never going home") and snapping, crisp snare sounds courtesy of drummer Michael Collins, that then dips and sags, Morrissey-like, in the middle eight, its heart aching with "…his hand in your hand/You finally understand/The sound of lines drawn in the sand".
The idea of love twinned with inevitable disappointment is nothing new but when explained as if the listener is locked in a warming embrace with the band as on 'Some People Say' – a stumbling travel tale that gazes up at the night sky, scrapes a violin, asks "Will you ever listen to these songs if you're ever lonely" before reassuring "You're not alone" – it's certainly close to overwhelming. This kind of melodic and lyrical richness continues on the luscious chamber pop of the title track, which juxtaposes Morris' feelings of personal dissatisfaction with professional pride ("I've never felt so poor and I don't know what I'm looking for/But it feels like we've made it", she observes) and brings to the fore the central theme of the album – how physical displacement, like love, can serve as a filter through which you come to see everything as new and different.
It's poetic, smart stuff that is best represented on album highlight "Tallulah" (a title that'll be familiar to any Go-Betweens fans out there), a ukelele lament that takes place "…at the tail end of summer" and wonders, tapping directly into the secret fears so many people share, if "…I've already heard all the songs that'll mean something… met all the people that'll mean something". The sun and the journey getting to its head, the tune wonders "…if you wanna go there with me/When I'm finished over here/If you're not finished with me". It's melodically succinct, emotionally weighty and still somehow keeps beaming.
Admittedly not every moment will win you over, indeed a couple of key sequences are botched – the album's opening line on the otherwise chiming, charming 'Neil Armstrong' is the worst on the whole record – "Heard you say they didn't put a man on the moon/We just needed someone to prove all this floating's worth doing"; while the opening line of the title track "There's a question I've been meaning to ask you/How do you feel about Europe?" sounds more like a political enquiry than a personal one before rescuing itself with the simple, album-defining line "Does it surprise you on the continent you don't feel the same?". There's also the niggle of 'Wonderland' which makes a return to London on a "crowded underground train" and comes across as both pedestrian and uninspired despite containing the evidently brilliant line "We could be polar bears". Similarly the unsuitably aggressive instrumentation of 'Still Young' sticks out somewhat due to guitarist Paul Rains, usually the embodiment of subtlety, going way overboard, transforming a perfectly serviceable tune into a '90s indie-landfill mis-step.
All sins are to be forgiven, though, for the endlessly listenable, rousing summer anthem 'Capricornia', a song that dives headlong into a skyscraping melody held aloft by the wandering, warm basslines of Bill Botting and a thoroughly irresistible drum part. Its puppyish energy, tempered with a hint of sadness that just makes the joy more tangible is the key to a tune that should join the ranks of Classic Indie Pop Songs the second it hits your ears. "I will come to you" trills Miss Morris "…when you fall down and when the lights go out/And we will set the world to rights when I find you/Under Capricornia skies"; you'll momentarily believe that all things are possible, however sad the past suggests the future may be.
Europe is a wonderful record, a true progression for Allo Darlin' as a band and for Elizabeth Morris as a songwriter. The further they stray out into the world, the more experience they have to look back on and the more times they fall in and out of love, the more and more potential they'll fulfill. On this form the indie poppers will have to learn to share their beloved band, as Allo Darlin' should soon be straddling the mainstream, giggling with glee, cheeks wet with tears.
- Michael James Hall
The magic of the debut wasn't just that thing that happens with young bands when everything is new and bliss is just around the corner. It's that Elizabeth Morris recognized this illusion as an illusion and entered wholeheartedly into its ebullience anyway. But now the Old World's cold weather and cramped spaces are getting her down‑-her most irresistible new song, taken solo with ukulele, recalls a blistering summer day down under when they found a Go-Betweens tape in the car. Though her tempos have slowed half a turn, reducing the twee factor if that was a problem for you, her melodies are still very much there and her lyrics are sharp throughout. But she's no longer at all confident that talent will out or love endures‑-her "This is life, this is livin'" is more resigned than celebratory, copping to her suspicion that a great night in bed will never be repeated. So let me assure her that at least she hasn't "already met all the people that'll mean something." Some of them haven't even been born yet. And I don't mean the kids I bet she's not sure she'll ever have.
- Robert Christgau
There's many things I loved about Allo Darlin' 2010 self-titled debut. The jangly guitars, strummy ukulele, and ebullient melodies that put the London-based foursome at the forefront of current bands unashamed to call themselves indie pop – absolutely – but what I found set them apart and made them really special was the way they used those traits to deliver songs that evoked the wistfulness and insecurity of growing up and out and apart. Far too often pure pop music feels strictly a youth movement but here was a band whose songs spoke to me in my mid- (okay now late-) thirties while still making me want to bop up and down like I did in my twenties.
It's not hard to understand, then, why I'm so enamored with their just-released follow-up Europe. It continues the journey started with that first record but informed with the extra wisdom, regret, and experience that life brings as you live it. As I did in that previous review, I need to stress that Europe is not some po-faced, navel-gazing collection of songs – songs like "Capricornia", "Northern Lights", and "Still Young" are like manna from heaven for those with a sonic sweet tooth, all shimmer and shine and Elizabeth Morris' sweetly smoky Aussie accent.
But you'll likely not find anyone who's listened to the album who wouldn't point to "Tallulah" as the album's centrepiece, despite it being the most skeletal and downcast song on the record. It stars just Morris and her ukulele – it's worth noting there's much less uke on this record than on the debut, with Morris strapping on a conventional 6-string as need be – and ruminates beautifully on distances of the geographical, temporal, and emotional varieties. The reminiscences may be Morris', but despite their specificity they're rendered in a way that makes you feel like they're your own. These aren't necessarily the notes you expect a band as outwardly cheerful as Allo Darlin' to hit, but that's what makes them so special.
On a scorecard that assigns points to pop criteria such as immediacy, buoyancy, what have you, it's entirely possible that Europe might place a bit below the debut. There's nothing as sweet and charming as "Polaroid Song" or "My Heart Is A Drummer" or, if go back to their early singles, as fun and cutesy as "Henry Rollins Don't Dance" – but I don't think you'd find anyone who'd try to argue that Europe isn't still the superior record because it's the one that confirms that Allo Darlin' are a band that are so much more than you probably thought.
- Frank Yang
In his tome 31 Songs, Nick Hornby suggests that while there's a place for the difficult sonic effects of the like of Suicide's Frankie Teardrop (and one suspects, the likes of the band-as-a-marketing concept of 'subversive art collectives' such as Breton or WU LYF), ultimately there'll always be a place for warm, genuine music – a sort of aural cuddle after a crap day. It's a concept that Anglo-Aussie quartet Allo Darlin' took and ran a mile with two years ago on their irresistibly charming and near-universally acclaimed début.
But to an extent things have changed in those two years. Whilst head honcho and songwriter-in-chief Elizabeth Morris is quick to point out that while sophomore effort Europe isn't a heartbreak record, it reflects a time not only of personal uncertainty (her visa was being reviewed at the time) but also civil unrest in the country during its conception. Making an album of carefree pop singles as per their previous effort would seem frivolous, self-indulgent almost.
Musically, Europe offers a natural progression and evolution from the début; a logical step one could argue, given how well received its forerunner was. But while the band themselves will readily admit that their last record was made with an element of intrinsic naivety – a love affair of being in a band, if you will – and not looking too far beyond having fun making it, Europe drips with confidence. Morris' voice has developed from a bashful near-whisper to a husky, Chrissie Hynde-esque burr. Likewise, Bill Botting's bass and Michael Collins' drums have been suitably beefed up to match, with Paul Rains' rolling guitar lines being given more room to breathe in the mix to boot. Having always felt like one those bands that just works, it's a view that's comprehensively backed up by Europe's assured, accomplished air - whether it's the punchy Capricornia and Still Young, the infectious shuffling of the title track and Wonderland, or the spellbinding minimalism of Tallulah.
As musically adept as it is, it's Morris' words which provide not only the focus but also a veritable treeful of cherries for an already liberally decorated cake. As richly detailed as they are touchingly personal, they see Morris' school of songwriting develop markedly record-on-record, concluding in a style that partly nods towards fellow storytelling extraordinaires David Tattersall (The Wave Pictures) and Jens Lekman whilst simultaneously carving out a style all of her own.
Throughout the album there's a real sense of conviction behind the lyrics, no more so than on the devastating, heartbreaking lament Tallulah, which sees Morris reminisce about bars that play The Maytals and car trips soundtracked by The Go-Betweens before candidly stating "I'm wondering if I've already met all the people that'll mean something". Likewise, when on lead single Capricornia she sings "we will set the world to rights/when I find you/under Capricornia skies" it seems both heartfelt and unwaveringly believable, as does the "I'll remember these nights always" refrain on the lush, string-laden title track. Penultimate track Still Young, meanwhile, is not only the group's most propulsive and downright anthemic moment to date, but also demonstrates Morris' ability to mine a rich seam of Bruce Springsteen-esque songwriting at will. From the dark verses of resignation ("Do you know how it feels/to be lost in the crush when you feel so down at heel") it builds to the chorus' fist-in-the-air closing couplet of "But we're not done/'cos we're still young!".
Allo Darlin' have achieved their aim of not producing a carefree record again, and then some - instead, they've created one of considerable, admirable depth and nous, though it retains the warm, personal nature of its predecessor. Staggeringly intelligent and breathtakingly emotive, it's pop music at its finest, contained not by genre or demographic boundaries. Morris has joined the likes of Jens Lekman, Stephin Merritt and Jonathan Richman in alternative pop music's great storytellers that deserve better than the constraints of the indie-pop tag. Beautifully poignant, it feels less like a set of songs and more like a collection of memories you've yet to experience.