There was quite a few ho-hum reviews of 2014’s album, Dismantle and Rebuild. The creators, The Ramona Flowers, were seen as aiming for Muse-cum-Radiohead epics; arena-ready and a little too sanitised – not quite gritty and real enough to ascend past their safer, more honed-in peers. Named after the heroine in the graphic novel (turned into a Hollywood film) Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: the band are excited about their new album Part Time Spies. From their colourful, eye-catching album cover through to their effusive, informative social media campaign/promotion: it seems a lot of work and attention has gone into the record
One of the most reoccurring criticisms about Dismantle and Rebuild was the irony of its title: a group that were not rebuilding indie but simply rehashing it; a cold blend of The 1975, Bastille and Kodaline. Lyrics tended not to go for depth and originality: perhaps too stilted, formulaic and pedestrian. The compositions were too processed while the production was too clean, polished and hollow: perfect for scoring a scene on Made In Chelsea; pretty insincere and ineffective elsewhere.
Dirty World ensures flourish and happiness open the album. The beats are straight and defined but the electronics sway, breeze and show some teeth – a nice and positive beginning. Black smoke fills the lungs (of the lead) and the man next door fills his suitcase “with the face of the queen”. Storms brew and the hero walks past bars adrift: deciphering the meaning and reality of the song is quite a challenge; the band have dispensed with simplistic lyrics and replaced them with needlessly complicated ones. A definite progression from their debut: Dirty World still doesn’t completely shake off the burdens of Dismantle and Rebuild.
Skies Turn to Gold certainly comes with energy and anthemic desires: big vocals and a composition that hits the ceiling and is reluctant to come down. “I keep falling for you” is the mantra that explains the song: the celebration of love and being in a relationship that is fueling and delirious. Maybe it is not quite as clear-cut as first thought: maybe the lead keeps falling for someone who is not right; never learning from that mistake. One of the more promising songs from Part Time Spies: Skies Turn to Gold is quite clean-cut and mainstream but manages to pack a chorus so big and singalong it is immune from easy digs and criticisms. The title track is fatigued and weary: knives are being plunged into back; people are double-crossing; that desire to hold onto love comes back in. Unlike their debut album: The Ramona Flowers ensure their compositions are not quite as predictable as before; the percussive elements are more challenging and the electronics rounded and emotive.
Run Like Lola (presumingly name-checking the heroine in the German film Run Lola Run) find a red-haired siren who is a runaway and flighty character. A “renegade” and evasive woman: she runs fast as lightning and packs a piercing scream. Unable to control the girl and keep her grounded: it is one of the more original and interesting lyrical explorations on the album. Not quite as cliché and safe as other songs (along Part Time Spies) it is another standout track. My Weirdo, by virtue of its title, could well be The Ramona Flowers embracing something darker and seedier. High-pitched vocals pay tribute to a “little weirdo” who is an unorthodox and hard-to-love girl – maybe an outcast and outsider. The band do not mock this fact and deal with it in affectionate and compassionate tones. The song is interesting in concept but is too repetitive and quirky for its own good.
Bringing the album down to a close are Sharks and Cold of the Night. The former is piano-led and balladeering. We go into weepy territory and the band take the lights down. The album tries to address issues of rising rents, broken love; the end of privacy and drunken nights – a more varied palette that highlights deep issues. Sharks seems to unify some of these themes together and has plenty of good intentions – one of the most serious and sensitive songs across Part Time Spies. Comparisons to Kid A-era Radiohead will come back in – many critics feel the band try to replicate that sound too much – but Sharks is a lot sharper and harder than that album; one of the spikiest and more sky-scraping numbers. Cold of the Night has dancing, warm synthesisers at its core. A promising finale but one that, rather sadly, never ignites or shows any real promise. It seems quite tacked-on and never hits its stride.
Bristol five-piece The Ramona Flowers (Steve Bird (vocals), Sam James (guitar), Wayne Jones (bass); Dave Betts (keyboards, guitar) and Ed Gallimore (drums) head to the U.S. in September and have a busy time ahead of them. Part Time Spies is intended to highlight the warmth of the human spirit and the complicated nature of modern society. Its business statement and ambitions are to be applauded but the messages and seriousness gets distilled by the lack of real evolution and development. Yes; Part Time Spies is stronger than Dismantle and Rebild but suffers the same woes: shiny, safe songs that try too hard to fit into radio moulds and chart parameters – concerned with fitting in the crowd rather than inspiring them. A few good moments aside: Part Time Spies is the sign of a band that need to take more risks and redefine themselves on their next album.
Part Time Spies is available on 9th September via Distiller Music