Watch the Fireworks
arly promotional images of Emma Pollock’s solo sojourn proposed it as a folky throwback; a stark contrast to the emotional bombast of her previous band, the Delgados, who split in 2005 after 11 years and five albums. The photos positioned Pollock alone on stage with an acoustic guitar, an implication that the diminutive Scottish singer had forsaken jarring indie rock for Joni Mitchell. The visual evidence however, couldn’t be further from the truth. Watch the Fireworks opens with the very same emotional bombast proffered by her previous employers: pounding drums, a whirring synth line, and a waltzing, lolloping, piano. It’s a dramatic introduction that suggests the Delgados tag may be as difficult to shrug off as a Hogmanay hangover. Atop of this musical grandeur Pollock sends out a “shout for the masses.” It’s a stirring sentiment that could be quite easily construed as a blatant call for commercial appeal.
And if it were, who would begrudge her? The Delgados detonated due, mainly, to the lack of money they made. Overlooked and undervalued, commercial success eluded the Glaswegian four-piece despite ever mounting critical acclaim. Perhaps in riposte to this, Pollock’s first outing since the break-up is sufficiently slicker than anything in her back catalogue. The vocals are rounded, confident, and pushed to the fore. The guitars are punchier, piano more prominent, and the songwriting seemingly a little more straightforward. But if the opening lyrics are to be taken literally, and mass appeal is an actual goal here, her style is still too nuanced to swim in commercial waters. This isn’t a pop record, but rather the sound of an artist more attuned to indie rock and orchestral overtures taking a stab at a mature record that just happens to have some distinctive pop overtones in its execution.
In saying that, there’s no denying that Pollock has an uncanny knack for distinctive melodies, but the album’s main problem is that she often misjudges the parameters of ‘pop’ and in doing so errs on the side of safety. The recurring riff that acts as “Adrenaline”’s pulse for example, is taken, it seems, directly from the Coldplay book of simple piano arpeggios. In a similar vein, “Acid Test” is propulsive and poppy but in a derivative stop-start post-punk fashion that Franz Ferdinand made fashionable three years ago. The fact that these songs were released as the album’s first two singles makes you wonder what point Pollock (or her label, 4AD) wished to convey.
It’s telling then that the best song is the one that sounds most like her old band. As a title, “New Land” is a misnomer of sorts. Sounding like a lost Delgados track it offers nothing new, yet as the album’s first song is a perfect bridge between her older work and the solo material solicited here. It’s grandiose and expansive and, as with most of the songs on Watch the Fireworks, piano features as prominently as guitars.
As Pollock has shown through her decade-plus tenure in the Delgados she can write great tunes, and several songs here should be added to that vast oeuvre. The aforementioned “New Land” leads the way and is closely followed by “If Silence Means That Much to You,” which ditches the piano for extra guitars. Fellow Scots, Teenage Fanclub, are aped successfully on the country rock ruminations of “Here Comes the Heartbreak,” while “This Rope’s Getting Tighter” echoes its lyrics (“keep it simple”) with a minimalist backing that allows the vocals to shine.
But what made Pollock’s songwriting with the Delgados so delightful was the understated nature in which she overreached and found the hot spot where artistic and emotional lines conjoin. Here, it sounds like she overreached but came up short on several occasions, most notably, the bigger, brasher tunes. On the perennially upbeat “You’ll Come Around” Pollock states: “You’ll come around again just when you think you’ve blown it.” And even though this outing pales in comparison with Pollock’s past, there’s enough evidence to suggest that her next solo outing will deliver on this promise.
Reviewed by: Kevin Pearson
Reviewed on: 2007-09-12