Available on: Arbutus LP
Blue Hawaii have said that Untogether, the title of their second LP, refers partly to the state of Montreal’s exploded scene. In the two or so years since the duo’s debut, Blooming Summer, many of their contemporaries – Grimes and Purity Ring foremost among them – have ascended to international fame, presumably leaving something of a hole in the city’s small musical community. This record, then, is the duo’s own pitch at wider success, a far more refined and restrained record than its predecessor.
But this isn’t just a case of buffing up a comfortable formula. Raphaelle Standell-Preston and Alexander Cowan are romantic as well as creative partners, and where Blooming Summer, in its verdant, tropical synthscapes, was a self-professed “love” record, Untogether is far more muted. The pair apparently took alternating shifts in working on the album, rarely spending time in the same room. “I love so hard I weep / […] Can’t say I like this,” sings Standell-Preston in the icy surrounds of ‘Yours To Keep’. “Staying is a chore.”
Fortunately the duo wring from their post-honeymoon drudgery a record of impressive poise and technical accomplishment. If there’s been a unifying characteristic of much of the Montreal scene’s output – beyond those icy synthetic backdrops and reverbed falsettos, evident throughout Untogether, particularly in the excellent ‘Reaction 2’ – then it’s a certain DIY quality. Even Visions, for all its techno trappings, sounded distinctly homemade. By contrast, Untogether is a remarkably polished record, appropriate given that its European distribution comes handled by Cologne minimal techno institution Kompakt.
In fact, one imagines Blue Hawaii were more than a little flattered by the connection, given the clear influence of crisp Kompakt-style techno on these tracks. It surfaces overtly – see the heads-down thud of ‘In Two (pt II)’ – but also often as negative space, an unheard kickdrum scooping out the mix, supplying an oddly ghostly sort of propulsion (parts of ‘Follow’, ‘Try To Be’). Over this sparse chassis, Standell-Preston’s vocal becomes the chief protagonist; not only as a vessel for melody, but stuttered, atomised and scattered as textural filigree, or wrenched into subtly inhuman shapes. Of course, vocal science of this sort is hardly a groundbreaking innovation, but the duo pull it off with flair – particularly in the subdued ‘Daisy’, where some amalgam of Standell-Pearson and machine executes fragile pirouettes over a typically cavernous beat.
That assessment – of a familiar sound or technique given a thoughtful new spin – applies to many facets of Untogether. Finely tooled structures, often starting as melody-led pop songs before detouring into dancefloor territory, allow the duo to sidestep the more cliched implications of their techno-pop sound palette. Still, for every success (see two-part single, ‘In Two’), there are more meandering offerings – as in ‘Nightskies’, which never quite hits its stride – and the ceaselessly maudlin tone of it all can get tiring. Untogether is a well executed record, but not a stunning one. Here’s hoping Blue Hawaii’s next LP will prove less of a chore for its creators.