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Friendly Fires and Pala: Stealing Chillwave’s Lunch Money, and I’m Rooting for the Bullies

May 28, 2011

In March 2010, New York Times critic Jon Pareles wrote of the then-peaking subgenre known as “chillwave” and its standard-bearers:

It’s annoyingly noncommittal music, backing droopy vocals with impersonal sounds—a hedged, hipster imitation of the pop they’re not brash enough to make.

I wish I’d written that sentence. It’s a spot-on crystallization of everything I’ve thought about chillwave since I went on a hunt for the stuff after falling wildly in love with Memory Tapes’ debut album Seek Magic in October 2009. Of course, a musical “hunt” in the Internet age takes all of 10 minutes of informed searching, after which, in this case, I started checking out tracks by Washed Out, Neon Indian, Toro y Moi, and others. All of which managed only to bore the day-glo snot out of me. Sure, what I heard did evoke vague notions and memories of 80s song snippets, video game music, anonymous John Hughes movie soundtrack artists, etc., and I appreciated the effort to make listeners feel something real by jumbling up bits of the artificial, shallow music of their childhoods. But, Memory Tapes aside, I found the actual songs by the other chillwavers sorely lacking in depth, complexity, and passion. To me, most of the music sounded like its creators didn’t really give a shit.

After that disappointment, I decided my best course of action was to leave the rest of chillwave to the underground blog-igentsia and settle in for a long love affair with the music of Memory Tapes’ Dayve Hawk. If you haven’t heard his stuff, I entreat you to resist the needless, inaccurate, far-too-common placement of Memory Tapes in the chillwave subgenre. Hawk deserves better than to be consigned to that particular dustbin, given his bottomless capacity to display warmth and humanity while writing dramatic dance-pop epics, chiefly “Bicycle,” “Stop Talking,” and “Graphics.” If Seek Magic had been released in 2007 or 2011 instead of at the peak of the chillwave pseudo-movement, I’m convinced that Hawk would be talked about in the same breath as Peter Hook, Martin Gore, and his other exalted forefathers. Few would be claiming that Hawk is better understood alongside his so-called chillwave “contemporaries,” a bunch of pale boys coarsely dicking around with rickety synthesizers, drum machines, and effects processors.

Returning to Jon Pareles’ wonderfully stinging language, there’s nothing “noncommittal” or “droopy” about most of Seek Magic. Memory Tapes IS, in fact, “brash enough” to refine great pop out of the same ore so clumsily handled by the mostly forgettable chillwavers. Even more brash is St. Albans, England’s Friendly Fires, on both their self-titled 2008 debut and their brand new sophomore album, Pala.

Now bear with me here, as I would never claim that the aspirations of chillwave exponents and those of Friendly Fires are entirely comparable. The chillwavers seem to embrace and strive for murky obscurity (aesthetic, not reputational), while Friendly Fires are ready for the stadium and already belting it out to the back row. But let’s take the conversation back to the fundamentals—the songs, not the accessorizing or classification thereof. Considering several songs on Pala in that regard, I hear Friendly Fires doing what others have said the chillwavers want to do. But they’re doing it in better, more fully realized songs with plenty of the direct emotional impact that’s mostly absent in chillwave.

The album’s first-half quartet of “Blue Cassette,” “Running Away,” “Hawaiian Air,” and “Hurting” provides the best examples of how Pala could, in some ways, be considered a “chillwave, but better” album. The larger argument is won by small details—the woozy keyboards in “Blue Cassette,” the breathy, sampled “Ohhhh…” vocal in “Hurting,” the almost recognizable (but not quite) 80s lite-groove in “Running Away”—along with the overall evocation of memory and summer. On this stretch and elsewhere (the title track, album closer “Helpless”), Pala sounds like the cassette you wish you had had in your Walkman in the summer of 1985, as you and your family were taking a beach trip that you hated at the time but now remember fondly.

I can hear the counterargument now—“Friendly Fires have co-opted chillwave, capitalized on its fleeting music-blog-culture momentum, and turned it into cheesy big-budget dance-pop.”  To which I would respond, “But hold it there, hipster. Isn’t chillwave itself grounded in co-optation?” Of course it is. The points that chillwavers do manage to score (very few with me, as discussed above) are entirely based in tweaking, filtering, and reassembling the fleeting musical memories of their youth. Friendly Fires does the same, but in the context of an accomplished band writing powerhouse hooks and developed songs rather than a solo artist doing sound sketches on a laptop. All a matter of taste, of course, but I’ll take the former over the latter any day. Friendly Fires may be stealing the poor little chillwavers’ lunch money, but I’m rooting for the bullies this time. For me, they’re just better.

The album cover depicts a formidable parrot, rumored to have pooped on the head of a chillwave musician shortly before the photo was taken.

My final point in arguing in favor of Friendly Fires and Pala has nothing to do with all this genre-based minutiae. Plain and simple, these guys can write, sing, and play some incredible pop music. For example, I love the fearless incorporation of a non-sequitur, Yes-worthy keyboard run in the middle of “True Love,” otherwise a pounding 4/4 track ready for the floor. It’s just one of several “I can’t believe they’re making that work” moments that, along with the evocative material discussed above, make Pala a remarkable pop album full of both instant gratification and real substance. Best of all, it shows tremendous growth from Friendly Fires’ 2008 debut, which itself was a fabulous album full of the huge, hooky, straightforward dance-rock that dominated this century’s first decade. On both albums, this fine band isn’t really doing anything that plenty of others are also doing. But to these ears at least, no matter which piece of the musical zeitgeist they’re tackling in any given song, Friendly Fires are better at it than almost anybody else. I love ‘em, and I’m already looking forward to album #3.

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3 Comments
  1. Anonymous permalink
    June 10, 2011 9:31 pm

    Nobody into electronic music would be caught dead using the term “electronica.” FYI.

    • Lloyd permalink
      June 11, 2011 1:10 am

      Are you commenting on a different piece of writing? Because the word “electronica” doesn’t appear in this piece. Nor does “electronic” for that matter. FYI, since it seems you didn’t actually read what I wrote.

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