The Naked And Famous might someday live up to the two adjectives that constitute its band name, but for now, the alternative electro-pop group from New Zealand hasn’t yet made it.
Not quite famous and not at all naked (in the lyrical sense, due to an insane amount of production), the five band members recently made the jump from Auckland to Los Angeles, which — given the glitz and shimmer that their music exudes — feels much more appropriate.
A slew of genres could be used to classify the band’s sound: indie-pop, electro, synthpop and alternative rock, to name a few. The band mashes all of the genres together to create a sound that works just as often as it doesn’t. They borrow simplicity from the xx, drama from Radiohead, pop from MGMT and Foster The People and indie credibility from Passion Pit. It doesn’t sound too bad, but striking a proper balance between successful musical influences is something The Naked And Famous hasn’t yet accomplished.
The Naked And Famous emerged as indie-pop darlings in 2010 with their debut album, Passive Me, Aggressive You. Their two singles “Young Blood” and “Punching In a Dream” were summer synth hits that resonated with the mainstream hipster crowd. In the two songs, they mastered the formula for tracks that were a perfect hybrid of dancing jubilation and rebellious angst. Now, with In Rolling Waves, the band is challenged with pushing the envelope.
“Hearts Like Ours,” the new album’s clear single, sounds like 2010’s “Young Blood” after being roused from a nap. The enthusiastic cries of “Yeah, yeah, yeah” on the latter track could easily be sliced into the former without disrupting any of its existing features. On “Hearts,” however, backup “aahs” fill the fleeting voids between lines, easy fodder for swaying and swooning concert-goers. Perhaps their signature wordless singalong cries are a key component of their infectious electro-pop hipster anthems. “Half awake and almost dead / Keeping empty beds elsewhere,” lead singer Alisa Xayalith coos on the track, “We’re yet to bleed / All the time and energy.” Her words drip with a longing to communicate the familiar teenage feelings of being misunderstood.
The rest of the album’s lyrics hold as much potency as anything Lana del Rey’s ever concocted, which isn’t saying much. Just like indie queen Lana del Rey, The Naked and Famous are particularly apt at delivering vapid lyrics meant to evoke feelings of sadness, angst and rejection. In the end, however, both acts still make catchy tunes.
Xayalith, a feisty, self-described “little runt” (per Twitter), can sound sharp, and her voice is undoubtedly piercing. Her straining vocals on the hard-hitting indie pop jams “Young Blood” and “Punching In A Dream” carried the band’s debut effort, but on In Rolling Waves, Xayalith shines when she’s not trying so hard to sing a song she can simultaneously dance to.
In the title track, “Rolling Waves,” she tones it down a notch and eases into a breathy lull, a sound that’s enabled a recent rise in female vocalists (see: Lorde, Grimes, Haim, etc.). Xayalith isn’t quite cool enough to step into that elite pixie-vixen category; she’s too busy teeming with angst and Karen O-envy. The singer even ditched her pitch-black hair for slate gray four months ago and chopped it into a bob three weeks ago (is it a coincidence that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer dyed her short locks blonde at the beginning of this year?).
Regardless, Xayalith definitely demonstrates that she’s not all sass, speed and energy on Rolling Waves. Her voice floats against the synth line like a harp bouncing off an electric guitar, and the result is entrancing. When the soft tinkling of piano keys emerge toward the end, her voice echoes, undulating continuously like her repetition of “rolling waves” until the song fades into silence.
On “What We Want,” she shares her powerful pipes with backup harmonies that channel Broadway’s Rent and mews against an acoustic guitar and violin on the ultimate track, “A Small Reunion.” It’s a change of pace from her shrill riot-shriek, and one that trades her sugary pop sound for something that almost has depth.
The effort falters when Xayalith and guitarist Thom Powers dabble in the call-and-response style in “The Mess.” It’s a tired tactic that seeks to emulate arguing lovers but is cheapened by its sappy lyrics. “I’m swelling and eager,” Powers sings and Xayalith counters, nodding to album’s loose aquatic theme, “I’m the raging sea.” “I’ve had it up to here now,” he calls again drowsily. “I’m so tired of your needs,” she cries. The song comes across like a couple’s quarrel that doesn’t have much substance. It breaks away from balladry and into a screeching synth line with chants attempting oomph, but the duet never achieves its desired level of dimension.
In Rolling Waves is a solid effort, but doesn’t exhibit much range from the New Zealand outfit — but at least it’s comforting that the album strives to be great.
Follow Alexa on Twitter @girkout