The record starts off with 'Europe', about as concise a song as you'll find in Do The Robot's discography, coming in at a touch under 4minutes. Within this timeframe the musical improvements the band has made in the past year all come to the fore - the songs are more densely packed with melodies and shifting arrangements, and there's a greater sense of movement inherent in the music. No longer do their songs coast along for 7minutes with a mere two or three chords, seemingly held in stasis; now songs embrace traditional pop structures while still keeping the band's trademark dreaminess and languid beauty. Another thing that will strike those familiar with the debut is the sound of the record - everything seems so much more full than before, and not just because of the increased use of guitar and keys overdubs. Engineer Todd Dixon has done a great job of balancing reverb-filled haze with a sense of weight for all of the instruments. The final thing of note that has really improved in recent times is Sera's singing - she has always had a voice with the perfect character for this style of music, but now she has better control of her vocals and hence comes across as much more powerful and confident. She also seems to have reduced the Americanisations in her pronunciation (something that is a bit of a pet peeve of mine).
The band also seems more willing (or more able) to mix things up - 'Grandmother's Bicycle' is a terrific, upbeat pop song that devolves into a Sonic Youth Sister-era outro, 'Mountain' is the tensely dramatic centrepiece of the album, and 'Moon In The Sky' shares a fair bit with sister-band The Rational Academy's more reflective moments. Meanwhile 'Just The Six (No The Five Of Us)' is the sort of extended jangly pop song that Amp On Fire was filled with - except better. Matt also mixes up his guitar tone much more frequently than on the prior record, often double tracking his parts and not being afraid to throw down some appropriately distorted shoegaze guitar. It helps to keep the record moving along, and stops things from getting too samey.
First Names is the record that I was hoping for with Amp On Fire - beautiful and stark, yet inviting and enveloping. Unlike Amp On Fire, it benefits from not outstaying its welcome, being all over in a bit over 35minutes. It also packs a lot more ideas into its running time than its predecessor, ensuring that the listener stays interested through its entire duration. Since Do The Robot have already moved on from the sound of this record I'm interested to hear their next release - if its much like their current live show we can expect it to be more obtuse, more ambient, more abstract and even more densely filled then First Names, and yet just as melodically satisfying as this record.
Oh, and I should also mention the beautiful packaging. The vinyl version comes in individually hand-crafted fabric jackets.