CD: Alt-J - Relaxer "Cambridge art-rockers extend their ambitions, but can they maintain their
From The Arts Desk
Some say Alt-J represent a paradox, blending, as they do, consummate artsiness with some absurdly catchy tunes. It's precisely this combination of ambition and accessibility that's helped them become one of Britain's most universally acclaimed bands. Everyone, it seems, has a soft spot for them, except, possibly, hipster journalists who feel they've sold out. Relaxer is a slightly different proposition. It's more ambitious than ever, and in places sublimely pretty, just not as immediate.
The songs naturally divide into two groups. Firstly, there are a handful that still evoke the spirit of band's first album, An Awesome Wave - an indefinable melange of rhythmic folk, blues and electronica. But the dominant sound is closer to the slow atmospheric second album. Except now the songs are longer with added strings and delicate, open-tuned guitars: a kind of ambient indie-folk.
Don't let that description put you off. There's nothing whining, or excessively fey about songs like "3WW", and "Last Year". Quite the opposite. The latter, a break-up song featuring Marika Hackman, is achingly sad. By contrast "3WW" looks at the beginning of a relationship with choral melodies that give way to folk harmonies which then melt into Mexican guitars. Possibly more intriguing is the band's reworking of "House of the Rising Sun" complete with orchestra and 20 classical guitars. To some the idea might feel preposterous. But if you can get beyond the sense of indulgence the net effect is intense and satisfying.
The mid- and up-tempo songs are more of a mixed bag. "In Cold Blood" possesses much of that infectious quirkiness that people loved about "Breezeblocks". But unfortunately the Graham Coxon-style garage rock of "Hit Me Like That Snare" just sounds odd. It's the album's only serious misfire and, ultimately, Relaxer's offbeat mix of styles and dogged self-belief manages, again, to speak fulfillingly to both heart and mind.