Do You Imagine Things?
eople change. Bands change. And sometimes, no matter how hard you strive to be open-minded about it, that’s really hard to deal with.
It’s a major challenge for those of us who try to review records. One of the things I’m most wary of when reviewing a new album by a band I previously felt strongly about is falling into the trap of unfairly skewing the review one way or another because of my opinion on the band’s past work. The absolute worst error of this type, as far as I’m concerned, is when you’re so disappointed that a new album by a band you love isn’t the album you wanted it to be that you fail to allow it to be the album that it is. That’s not fair to yourself, the album, the band or your readers. It seems obvious to say you should never dislike an album just because it’s different from something else the band has done, but it happens to the best of us.
I mention this here, of course, because Alfie’s second proper album Do You Imagine Things? had me worried I was falling into that trap. Their first album-length release, 2001’s If You Happy With You Need Do Nothing, was a collection of EP tracks and two new songs. It’s the type of record that barely missed my top ten that year, but in the intervening time has gotten more play than anything I rated higher that year. It has a warm, ramshackle sound; to me it sounded like the music the band made without even trying. Even the sublimely rocking “Talking Song” had an easy, natural feel to it. There were some reference points you could note (Stone Roses, Belle & Sebastian), but they were distant. It sounded, in other words, like a new band instantly finding a fresh voice.
I missed Alfie’s first album proper, 2002’s A Word In Your Ear due mostly to a fear that it wouldn’t live up to If You Happy With…. Maybe if I hadn’t missed it, Do You Imagine Things? wouldn’t have been such a shock; but then again, maybe if I’d heard it I wouldn’t have grabbed this album. In either case, the psychedelic depiction of the five band members reclined in sleep on the cover should have tipped me off that things are different in a big way.
My first impression: Alfie want to be Welsh. Specifically, they want to be latter-day Super Furry Animals and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. There is a bright, bursting pop sound here, with unexpected referents abounding; in much the same way as the end of oldie “Check The Weight” resembled unplugged Tortoise, here the end of “People” does a passable Stereolab impersonation.
I actually felt betrayed the first few times I put on this record; for a band that sounded so sure of its own voice, to hear them becoming a band in the mode of so many others was hugely disappointing. But, wary of the above fear, I kept listening to the album.
And I have to admit, when it works, it’s great. “People” and “Stuntman” make a great opening duo, “Winding Roads” manages to update their earlier sound without being glib and “Indoor League” reminds me of “Talking Song” in bursts. But for every lovely “Protracted”, we have an awkward “Mollusc”. For every “No Need”, there’s the tiresome “My Blood Smells Like Thunderstorms”, and for every “Winding Roads” there’s a twee “Isobel”.
Some of the weaker songs can be forgiven in context, especially considering this album is a song cycle about a recluse finally learning how to get out in the world again; hence the part of “Indoor League” that makes me wince (the point where it’s about talking magic football shoes that teach their owner an important lesson about confidence). It culminates in the lovely “Hey Mole” with the lines “If you’ve ever been consoled / You know what happened to this mole / If you’ve ever been set free / You know what all this means to me”. I’m glad to hear that Lee Gorton and co. are either getting over their own issues or else reaching out to those less fortunate (and indeed, if I had any friends who were shut-ins, I’d lend them this album posthaste, as I could see it doing good), but that doesn’t make me wish for something of If You Happy With…’s caliber any less, whether it sounds like that album or this one. As it is, I’m pretty sure I’ve come to grips with Alfie’s new sound. If their next album keeps the good parts of this one and increases the quality control, we could be looking at a modern classic of bright, psychedelic indiepop.