Put anything else you’re listening to aside. I’ve found your perfect summer album: New Eyes, the orchestral- and house-tinged electro full-length debut of Clean Bandit, an electronic quartet founded in Cambridge. The timing of this album is pretty much perfect, because it just screams summer. It’s got prismatic, shimmering synths, massively catchy hooks, and just enough stirring strings to make you feel just a tiny classier than if you were listening to just a straight electro album. New Eyes just begs to be blasted during a summer drive with the windows down and the wind whipping through your hair.
Opening track “Mozart’s House” (feat. Love Ssega) gets things started with the challenge “So you think electro music is boring? You think it’s stupid? You think it’s repetive? Well…it is repetitive.” If that seems like an odd, tongue-in-cheek way to start off your electro album, you’d be right, but that challenge totally fades to the background when the track gets properly started. You think it’s a pretty standard electronic track, until halfway through the song, when strings break in and class things up with a beautiful segment that you’d be more likely to hear at a concert hall than on an electronic album.
The next two tracks – “Extraordinary” (feat. Sharna Bass) and “Dust Clears” (feat. Noonie Bao) – follow that same balancing act. “Dust Clears”, especially, is a standout track that’s equals parts dreamy synths and soaring strings.
That mix of classical and electronic all comes together in “Rather Be” (feat. Jess Glynne). In the weeks since I first spun this album, I’ve listened to “Rather Be” around 150 times…and I still love it just as much as the first time I heard it. Simply put, it’s a feel-good jam. It begs you to dance and sing along, and if you resist…I’m sorry to break it to you, but you might just be dead inside. “Rather Be” is just pure, unadulterated glee; the chorus – “If you gave me a chance, I would take it / It’s a shot in the dark, but I’ll make it / Know with all of your heart, you can’t shame me / When I am with you, there’s no place I’d rather be” – is so incredibly joyful that it’s like a shot of sunshine straight to your veins.
For the first few seconds of “A+E” (feat. Kandaka Moore & Nikki Cislyn), which sound like a proper church hymn, it seems like that balancing act has come undone, but then the track turns on its head morphs into a slinking, serpentine groove – which is fitting, considering the open lines are “I’m a sneak, I’m a tricky little freak / I’m a killer, you won’t see me as I slither down the street.”
The album hits a second high point with “Come Over” (feat. Stylo G), which is pretty much the sonic embodiment of summer, even more so than “Rather Be”. I expected to shake sand out of my headphones after hearing this track for the first time. Its breezy, light vocals are perfectly matched with the Caribbean steel drums and refrains of “You bring me sun-sun-sun-sunshine” that echo them.
And then…okay, I haven’t been totally honest. This is roughly sixty-six percent of the perfect summer album. The first two-thirds of New Eyes are pretty brilliant and features some of the best electro offerings I’ve heard in ages, and the following four are still solid enough tunes that the album doesn’t suffer from them. For a while, I had visions of 8s and 9s flitting through my brain. And I won’t lie: during the heights of “Rather Be”, that rating edged up even further. If this had been a four or seven track EP, I’d sing its praises to anyone who would listen, and I’d probably have ranked it as one of my favorite releases of the year.
The last third of the album, though, brings that carefully constructed, gorgeously shiny electronic house of cards crashing down. Starting with the ninth track – “Up Again” (feat. Rae Morris) –New Eyes derails in mighty and disappointing fashion. While I understand and respect that Clean Bandit didn’t want to rely on the same style – legato strings backing shimmering synths and bouncing beats – for the entire album, the slow, lethargic, unhurried “Up Again” doesn’t so much act as a counterpoint for the sunnier tracks as it does drag New Eyes down and bring the sunny, bright album to a screeching halt.
To its credit, the next track – “Heart on Fire” (feat. Elisabeth Troy) – speeds things up again and valiantly tries to get things back on track. The chorus, which pulses and throbs like a proper danceable track, is pretty cool, but the vocals are a little too R&B-inspired (especially the crooned “oohh”s that open the track) to gel with the rest of the song.
The worst, though, is yet to come. “New Eyes” (feat. Lizzo) is so discordant, so stilted, so forced, so very unlike the rest of the album that it without question the low point of the album. Whereas the rest of New Eyes is so smooth, the title track carries none of that slick production or swooping orchestral touch. Instead, it’s rough around the edges. Where most of the other tracks rely on clear, clean vocals, “New Eyes” dips down into the trenches. There’s nothing pretty about it, and the album limps along from there until the end. The last two tracks – a swooning ballad that’s pretty enough and an instrumental outro – can’t possibly recover in time to save the album.
To put it simply. New Eyes is two-thirds of an excellent album…and one-third of just a terrible attempt to mix things up. In the future, I just hope that Clean Bandit sticks to the fast-paced sunny electro beats with a few strings and piano thrown in, because when that’s the name of their game, it is nothing short of brilliant.
Now excuse me while I go listen to “Rather Be” another few dozen times.