Friday, 11 April 2008

Review: The Rational Academy - A Heart Against Your Own

I'm sure there are people out there who thought that this would never materialise. In fact, I may have been one of them. Despite that, as unbelievable as it may seem, it has finally happened... The Rational Academy have released an album, after a mere few years of saying 'oh yeah, our debut album is coming out in a few months'. Featuring contributions from Lawrence English, Ben Frost, John Chantler and various guest musicians and former band members, A Heart Against Your Own puts forth a varied palette of sounds and moods. How does it all stack up? Pretty damn well indeed, I say.

The album starts off with perhaps its strongest track, 'The Author'. The song is propelled by organs, bass synths, electronic drums and Meredith McHugh's subdued vocals. For those who have only seen The Rational Academy in their live guitar-fueled glory, it may come as a bit of a shock to hear the band playing a song that is largely devoid of said guitars (though a few of them pop up in the choruses), but for anyone who has been following the band from the cut-up folk of their debut EP (drums), through to collaborations with Lawrence English and Tujiko Noriko and finally to recent live favourite and Triple-J single '2004', the electronic flavour that pervades 'The Author' (and, indeed, the majority of the album) is not at all unexpected.

'JoJo Planteen' follows with cleanly picked guitars and Ben Thompson's voice on top of a bed of bubbling electronics, and is one of the most straight-forward pop songs on the album - that is, until the end of the song when a wall of feedback and effects gradually rises to envelope all other sounds. The short 'David' features more clean guitars and some very faint washes of delay in the background, and is one of the loveliest songs you'll hear this year (it has a feel that is quite reminiscent of the previously mentioned (drums) EP - quiet, folky, melodic with a hint of experimentalism).

The single, '2004', is next. If you've seen the band in the last year or so, this is the song where everyone moves away from their respective instruments and dances/sways around the stage for 5minutes while Ben's laptop does the work of providing the backing music. It's a great song, though I find it surprising that it was picked up by JJJ over either 'The Author' or 'JoJo Planteen' - not that it matters, they're all worthy songs. Anyway, how can you not like a song in which a band references itself ('Keeping your time with The Rational Academy')? This song always makes me nostalgic for the days of 610 and for bands like Shuriken and Nightstick (although it doesn't really reference any of those things specifically - the song seems to be more of a putdown to a former love interest, putting distance between the narator and the things - in this case bands - he/she used to love but now associates with someone they'd perhaps rather forget. That said, I'm no lyrical expert so don't take my word for it).

'Two Books' has been previously released (as a 7" with the fantastic 'Handwritten Novels'), and on the album it represents the most faithful representation of The Academy's traditional live sound. It's all pounding drums, distorted feedbacking guitars and boy-girl vocals. It's pretty much the same version as the one on the 7", except that now there's over 2minutes of guitar ambience at the end of the song. This ambience leads into the 9minute epic 'Squid & Whale', which starts off with a brief drum machine intro before bursting into another guitar-and-live-drums number.

Where 'Two Books' had its split personality separated into two definite halves (the 'rock song' half and the 'ambience' half), 'Squid & Whale' is a much more multi-headed beast. It starts out as a fairly straight up guitar-pop song before taking a turn into some darker sounding territory. From there it dissolves into synth and guitar ambience, before suddenly returning to a live band sound for an quick guitar workout that morphs into a wall of feedback, and eventually all fading away for the beautiful outro section. Linear, it ain't. For whatever reason it seems to be the most roughly recorded song on the album (I'm guessing it must have constructed piece by piece), but that doesn't really detract from the song in any major way. I must say that I think the recorded version is easily shown up by the band's live performance of the song, but maybe that's just because the live version is so good. Lastly, 'Airport Nation' brings things to calm finish. The song is the folkiest thing on the album, and probably the most beautiful.

At a mere 7 tracks and with a running time of only slightly over half an hour, A Heart Against You Own is no epic (in stark contrast to The Gin Club's Junk). For those who have been waiting 4 years for this album, it might seem a little slight (I would have loved the band to have included their compilation track 'Turin', as it would have fit on the album perfectly). However, I don't think it's really a valid criticism, for two reasons: firstly, every song on the album is great (or to put it in more 'rock' terms, it's all killer, no filler) - this is an album that you can look upon and feel proud that your home town could produce such fantastic music. Secondly, the band has stated that the next album is pretty much done and ready to go, with a tentative release scheduled for October this year (there may also be another release in between these two 'main' releases, but I don't have confirmation and I'm not sure if the band wants it to be widely known yet, so I'll leave it at that). Hopefully the next album will contain some of the 'classic' Rat Acad songs that were conspicuously absent from this album, such as 'Pop Repeats', 'Swimming Pool' and my personal favourite Academy song, 'Beach Party'.

Let's just hope that this time we don't have so long to wait.

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