Tuesday, February 17, 2015

North Highlands - North Highlands (2015)

It's a bit of a shock that Brooklyn powerpop quintet North Highlands' follow up to their 2011 debut full length Wild One arrived almost entirely without ceremony. After premiering the first single "Shade" the first week of February, a stream soon went up a week later followed almost instantaneously by the official album release. But North Highlands have never been ones for hype and playing their final show in March, it makes sense that they'd keep to that method of relying far more on word of mouth from dedicated friends and newly converted fans to drum up interest than engaging in much of the music industry game.

Building off of 2013's "I'll Do My Best"/"Halo" 7", North Highlands have refined a bit of the more nebulous parts of their sound. Gone are the folkier and chamber pop-esque elements as Andy Kasperbaeur shelves his violin for guitar and Brenda Malvini leans harder into the use of various synth tones. However that's all that's been carried over from the one-off single, the surf-pop aesthetic abandoned for something far truer to North Highlands' elected home. North Highlands have always reveled in a sense of nostalgia - the sincere pining for hometowns long since abandoned aiding their whimsical, lilting brand of dream pop on Wild One and their self-titled is no different. However on North Highlands, the band longs for days on the road, for cities left behind, and the New York City they once loved.

Rather like their debut record, North Highlands never offers these devastating takeaways point blank. Malvini retains her delicate, inviting coo and the band are in rare form shuffling through an impressive amount of ear-catching musical moments and a dazzling array  of textures. Each song on their sophomore has at the very least two moments that you're basically guaranteed to return to from the shimmering shuffle of "Axelrod" to the soft-focus guitar pop of "That's So Good"; the soaring, ecstatic heights of "Quitter" to the sweeping harmonies of "Shade" North Highlands are on their A game - taking each music idea to its logical conclusion and pushing it forward into something interestingly different.

North Highlands is a pretty accurate summation of the band delivered at their absolute peak. After spending much of their career settling into a characteristic sound they've finally achieved it - capturing perfectly the subtle way they feed off of each other live to tape. The fact that they can shuffle so seamless from music idea to music idea in a way that doesn't just seem like they're grasping at straws is indicative of that. The album's a full band effort; all hands in the pot and that's evident in the way the melodies - swirling synths, Malvini's feathery light vocals, the guitar interplay built upon Jasper Berg's steady but skillful percussion.

North Highlands approaches the band's growing sense of malaise with a surprising lack of fire. Malvini's vocals aren't emotionally detached but she handles falling out of love with an impressive amount of decorum. It's an amicable break but one which North Highlands ushers in a manner that's downright celebratory. All of the energy reserved for fighting transmuted into an acceptance of what the band sees as an inevitable end that simply won't deter their fun. The irony of course that the self-titled is the more down tempo of their two records and yet, even at its most languorous there's the persistence of infectious melodies. That's the real takeaway. Released nearly a year after the band have officially called it quits (or gone on an indefinite hiatus and scattered across the US), North Highlands never lose their comforting sense of persistence. Their melodies are as catchy as they've ever been even as they reach emotional depths Wild One only hinted at. Where Brenda Malvini held listeners lyrically at arms length on Wild One, she's shortened the distance here, bringing the arms in as the band give us one last dance before the lights go up.

North Highlands is out now and available to buy digitally now. Stream the album in full via NME or on Spotify.

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