Graded on a Curve:
Allo Darlin’, Europe

The finest examples of indie-pop manage to feel deliciously out of step with current trends, leaving their mark by confidently being themselves in a sea of records spinning variations on the latest thing. London’s Allo Darlin’ has a secure handle on this tradition, and their second long player Europe is not only a well-done expression of what makes the genre so appealing, but also bodes well for the band’s future.

In a manner not unlike how zydeco is identified with Louisiana or no-wave is described as a style of New York development, indie-pop is essentially thought of as a form born from the United Kingdom, for that is where its generally acknowledged roots (the melodically inclined punk of The Buzzcocks, pop-savvy post-punkers such as Television Personalities, Josef K, and Orange Juice) are all located, and it’s also the locale that really kick started the whole movement in earnest (think The Smiths, C86, and both Sarah and Creation Records).

Sure, there were certainly a few likeminded groups across the globe (say Beat Happening in Olympia, Washington, The Cannanes in Sydney, Australia, and Shonen Knife in Osaka, Japan) but these outliers weren’t really integrated into the scheme of things until indie-pop spilled out into a global movement in reaction to the post-grunge ‘90s (one instance of a parallel scene, New Zealand’s proliferation of small bands centered largely around the Flying Nun label, rests almost entirely on its own merits and should be looked upon as a scene unto itself).

So it makes sense that Elizabeth Morris, a native of Australia, would end up making records as a London migrant. Allo Darlin’ is led by Morris, and from the quiet beginnings of a few self-released EPs while also serving as a member of Tender Trap (a band with a solid indie-pop pedigree, featuring three members of Marine Research, most notably Amelia Fletcher, also formerly Heavenly and ‘80s legends Talulah Gosh), she and her group have grown in confidence and scope to be one of the better examples of indie-pop currently operating.

And the connection to Tender Trap is a significant one, for along with a similarity in sound, Morris’ singing and songwriting displays the same sort of confidence and smarts that Fletcher has exhibited in both her fledgling and mature work. Curiously, when first noticing the title of Europe’s standout track “Tallulah,” my kneejerk reaction was that it was in reference to Fletcher’s first band. But no; there is indeed an extra letter “l” in the name, and the track instead refers to the fifth album by that most excellent Australian band The Go-Betweens, who in a manner similar to Morris spent a fair amount of time in Great Britain in the earlier stages of their career.

Nostalgia is a big part of the indie-pop trip, in particular the pining for or the idealizing of a time and place from before you were born. For instance, the use of old photographs was a recurring motif on indie-pop album covers like Television Personalities’ …And Don’t the Kids Just Love It and needless to say, pretty much the whole run of Smiths’ records. This has resulted in some observers painting over indie-pop with a brush soaked in conservatism, but that line of thinking usually has some sort of agenda, most frequently either rockist (i.e. they don’t have the “right” attitude) or in service of a constant flow of innovation (they’re not playing music the “right” way). There’s a reason why Orange Juice, those Smiths, C86, and Beat Happening all inspired sizable waves of often mean-spirited detractors, and it’s why when Nirvana openly expressed admiration of The Vaselines through covers of “Molly’s Lips” and “Son of a Gun,” so many Black Sabbath-loving observers very openly couldn’t deal.

Europe absolutely possesses this by now well established inclination to look back, but like the best of the prior work in the style that embodies this outlook, it’s far more than just an exercise in yearning. The biggest quality in Morris and company’s favor is that she’s not operating from a sense of simple nostalgia; rather, her songs depict an often bittersweet recollection of the past and how those memories interact with the present. Marcel Proust may not have loved Europe (had he somehow lived to hear is charms), but he would’ve certainly understood it.

While their self-titled debut from 2010 was a pleasant affair that set the context for Allo Darlin’ rather nicely, Europe is a big step up in both songwriting quality and in the assurance of delivery. Opener “Neil Armstrong” not only shows off the bands’ strides extremely well, but it will also establish to newbies exactly what Allo Darlin’ are about; it’s the kind of song that can easily tempt a listener into donning a moth-eaten cardigan while puffing on a clove cigarette and gazing at a black and white photograph of Tom Courtenay. How fragile, and yes, how winsome. And the track that follows it, “Capricornia,” begins with some almost requisite achy strum before kicking into a crisp up-tempo slice of indie-pop that’ll likely charm the trousers right off longstanding fans of The Wedding Present.

From there the album just rolls. The title cut really drives home how the majority of Europe’s tracks exist essentially as audio letters or confessions to characters (either real or fictive, setting up a sweet ambiguity) that Morris as narrator holds close. Plus, its use of strings is quite tasteful, complimenting the songs’ pleasant rainy day jangle, never overwhelming it. This is followed with “Some People Say,” which features the terrific ukulele strumming of Morris, this element helping to define Allo Darlin’ as something much more than just a standard bunch of indie-pop idolaters.

And the uke is employed to magnificent effect on “Tallulah,” again Europe’s standout cut. In both its melodic simplicity and the open vulnerability of its storytelling it can feel like a readymade for some aspiring filmmaker with a digital camera, a handful of eager if outwardly blasé cast members and a trust-fund just waiting to be whittled down to nothing. And this is cool, except for one thing; the movie has already been made by Elizabeth Morris. All that’s required to watch is the closing of the eyelids.

A song like “Tallulah” requires a certain level of bravery to pull off, for if it fails its much worse than a misstep. It’ll be downright embarrassing. And while this song succeeds wholeheartedly, it’s also quite nude in its emotionalism, and listening to it can feel a bit like eavesdropping. Of course, this is absurd. It is a record, after all. But that’s the power of music for you.

If “Tallulah” is Europe’s best moment, it’s also an album with no bum tracks. Penultimate cut “Still Young” is the closest the disc comes to straightforward rocking, and it can’t help reminding me of what Velocity Girl might’ve sounded like if they’d resided closer to the River Thames than the River Potomac. Another similarity throughout the record (especially on “Some People Say”) is Glaswegians Camera Obscura, though Allo Darlin’ are just a wee bit more spritely. For fans of indie-pop, Europe will be a welcome addition to the library, and it just might tear the wig off newcomers to the style.

I can easily envision some of those listeners glancing to the bottom of this review and wondering why Europe didn’t receive a higher grade. And in a sense, they’d have a point, since the text above is loaded with praise and lacking in faults. To elaborate, this is indeed an LP without any glaring flaws, but it is also a record that’s very much “in the tradition.” Allo Darlin’ fit into the Slumberland roster like long, thin torso snuggly hugging a thrift store sweater, and their sophomore record is one of the best femme-fronted indie-pop slabs to grace my ears in quite a while.

And if it were readily apparent that Allo Darlin’ had outdone themselves and hit a qualitative ceiling in the making of Europe, a higher grade might have been called for. But in this case, it’s obvious that Elizabeth Morris and her cohorts are capable of far more than just putting their own superb spin on a fine genre; if they keep at it, they could very likely play a role in defining the indie-pop sound for a whole new generation. With this possibility in mind, my highest marks are being saved for if and when.

Graded on a Curve: B+

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