By Conrad Amenta | 4 September 2009
I suppose Wild Beasts’ semi-hyped debut Limbo Panto and the crescendo of critical description that followed made it inevitable: this band is now officially about Hayden Thorpe’s Tiny Tim vocals. Every review, positive or negative—including this one—will begin and end with finger pointed squarely in Thorpe’s direction. Every action the band takes from here on out is subsequent or reactive to it, tripped up or launched by it. It’s hardly fair. And so the most subversive gesture Wild Beasts can hope for is to cover up Thorpe’s vocals and hope that, as with Radiohead’s decision to cover up a defining voice on “Everything in its Right Place,” people lose their shit.
Okay, so it’s probably too soon for subversion. After all, Limbo only came out last year (and to accolades at that), and its follow-up does improve in almost every conceivable way. The music is luxurious, tinged ever-so-slightly with delay and distortion; its rhythms are poly, its production flawless; and Thorpe’s vocals—oh those moaning, aching, hyperbolic vocals—rarely outstrip themselves of their welcome on an album less than 40 minutes long.
Limbo‘s musical backdrop was overshadowed by Thorpe and so, inevitably, is Two Dancers, even if it’s also staid, loungy, intuitive, immediately accessible, and filled to bursting with melody. It’s all right there in “Hooting and Howling,” which opens with a piano breakdown and Thorpe’s vocals, right on the edge of becoming insufferable, and then moves effusively into something cohesive, smoothed, amiable. Natch, “We Still Got the Taste Dancing on Our Tongues,” whose double-strum guitar actually legitimizes the use of the word “driving” on an album this straight up pretty. Highlights “All the King’s Men” and “This is Our Lot” are both jams, to Two Dancers what “The Stillness is the Move” is to Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca.
It’s the titular twin elegies that really refine Two Dancers to a sharp point, a binary summation of the album whole. Thorpe holds back, never really coming close to the occasional growl he displayed on Limbo and which pushed him to self-parody, and the arrangements and inventive rhythms are allowed to underscore the band’s development. The songs, especially part II, is a perfect example of the sort of minor modification and honing one expects of a sophomore record. Two Dancers as a whole only really starts to run on fumes around “Underbelly,” a two-minute sketch of a song that doesn’t really develops into anything, and afterthought “The Empty Nest”; up until that point the album is one of the most consistent listens this year.
Is it curse or blessing that this band hinges so entirely, and seemingly of no design of their own, on Thorpe? His voice immediately distinguishes, but eclipses them. In my review of Limbo Panto I wrote, “Until the group learns to keeps pace or more effectively makes space for Thorpe, their singer will remain the first, best, and only reason to listen to Wild Beasts.” Here the band not only keep pace, if not make space, but are the reason to listen. Thus the album remains surprisingly polemic for something that, musically at least, is so easy and free; Thorpe and co. can still sound as if they play against rather than off one another. But Two Dancers, a huge improvement that comes only one year after their debut, is certainly the sounds of Wild Beasts becoming a band to keep tabs on.