Alt-J’s ‘An Awesome Wave’ is cool but not cool

Alt-J are achingly en pointe with their brand of oddball geek chic. They’re ‘cool but not cool’, which obviously makes them EVEN COOLER. Named after the Mac keyboard shortcut to make a triangle (ooohhh!), singing sexy songs about geometry (ahhhh!), wearing very lovely glasses (boffin rock! Wahoo!!)… Frankly, if we were that ‘cool but not cool’ we don’t know what we’d do with ourselves.

And now, they’re Mercury Prize winners – hotly-tipped but tricksy victors next to the more established likes of Plan B and Richard Hawley, or the dulcet tones of Lianne La Havas and Michael Kiwanuka. All of which begs the question, for those of you still wondering, are they actually any good?

In a word; yes. An Awesome Wave will not appeal to everyone’s musical sensibilities, and some listeners may find the general spikiness and (gulp) ‘quirkiness’ a little pretentious. Tread lightly before dismissing them, however. Listen in and you’ll find much to enjoy.

Like fellow Mercury nominees Django Django, Alt-J (sorry, ∆) have packed an awful lot into their varied debut LP. But while the former generated a warmer, ultimately more poppy sound, the latter have created an impish, jagged oeuvre. A raw percussive quality – by turns organic and processed – prevails throughout much of the album, embracing tempo changes and unpredictable on tracks like Dissolve Me.

Folky vocal sensibilities combine with arresting samples and beats on the likes of sexy single Tessellate – a track that does the unthinkable by including the lyric “triangles are my favourite shape” without sounding daft. It’s genuinely quite sexy, inciting their addressee “let’s tessellate” as if it were the new, intellectual, ‘grinding’. Yeah.

Without being conventionally paced, the record manages to move along effectively, aided by the incorporation of three ‘Interludes’ across the record – featuring pagan-ish acappella, delicate acoustic notes and haunting falsetto. And through all, it’s the diverse electronic strains – atmospheric on Something Good, crunching and rather majestic on Fitzpleasure – that marry it all together, that give anchorage to an alt-indie style that may otherwise have drifted off into oblivion.

All considered, An Awesome Wave is a very good record – not a perfect one (certain impulsive drives and pensive moments could have been realised with greater impact), but one with an appealing thoughtfulness and rousing attention to interesting detail. Give it multiple listens and you’ll continue to uncover intriguing layers.

Alt-J’s debut album An Awesome Wave is out now.

Polly Glass @Polly_Glass

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