Balthazar come to release their second album with a sense of expectation surrounding them. Granted, ‘Applause’, the Belgians debut released in 2010, was not a massive hit in this part of the world, it was nevertheless a fine offering with lead singer Maarten Devoldere and co offering up upbeat, funky indie-pop.
Opening with The Oldest of Sisters, ‘Rats’ is instantly a more laid back affair. So much in fact that Devoldere’s hardly even singing. Words seem to spill out of his mouth like he’s uncomfortable as if he’s using a tongue he isn’t used to yet. Don’t take that as a complaint however as, the lack in conviction in the vocals is more than made up for by their charm and distinctiveness.
Sinking Ship follows up on a similar note with lines like “All the different shapes and forms which you control/From the whitest and purest to the whore of alcohol” spilling out sounding like his mouth is just too full of words to hold them in. The drums and bass take the musical lead with additional flourishes, mostly strings and a glockenspiel here, layered over the top.
But it’s those vocals that eventually get to you. Starting off refreshingly sweet and relaxed, they end up overly saccharine and decadent. It is velvet-like but velvet should only be used sparingly; you wouldn’t decorate your whole house in it. The Man Who Owns The Place and Any Suggestions are the main offenders of the excessively luxuriant vocals, with Devoldere agonising over nearly every syllable. It is with great relief that the latter gives way to an instrumental piece halfway through.
It’s not that these are inherently bad songs in their own right; it’s that the over reliance on the one sound throughout the whole album brings it from interesting, via boring, to grating
It’s only Later – with its thrilling strings leading the tune – and Do Not Claim Them Anymore, and its woodwind infused chorus, that offer anything different. Here there is a level of excitement and intrigue so sorely lacking throughout the rest of the album. The tempo keeps the vocal indulgences to a minimum and the songs are all the better for it.
The album as a whole ends up falling flat, which is all the more disappointing given that so many elements work well together. Balthazar may have a great album in them one day if they manage to restrain some of their wandering urges. ‘Rats’ unfortunately isn’t it. It doesn’t even hold a candle to ‘Applause’.