Dream pop is a tricky genre to navigate through and master as an artist. It balances tentatively at the blurry intersection where classic meets psychedelic pop and it rarely seeps into the mainstream. Australian bassist Harriette Pilbeam, known by her moniker Hatchie, may very well change this. The singer has found a niche in blending classic pop songs with folk elements with dreamy synth-drenched soundscapes. In oscillating between these genres, she represents a new brand of synth pop that has been notably absent from the modern pop realm so far.
‘Sugar And Spice’ is a suiting title for Pilbeam’s debut EP; each song is saturated with lyrical clichés and bright arrangements that veer on the edge of sickly sweet, while the cover art, which features Pilbeam staring pensively through a cut out heart, could easily serve as a Valentine’s Day card cover. It provides a decent intimation of the type of songs that are to come on the EP.
Sure opens proceedings with a lengthy, effervescent intro that asserts the genre of the EP as most certainly dream pop. Acoustic and electric guitars meet bright snares and Juno synths before they eventually fade away to make room for Pilbeam’s vocal to take to the forefront. The bright acoustic guitar is reminiscent of Linger by The Cranberries, as is Pilbeam’s voice; she shares an understated vocal style with Dolores O’Riordan that contrasts well with the rich instrumental arrangements. As does most of the EP, Sure maps the turbulence of teenage romance in both the lyrics, “you say you want it to be over, but is it ever really over?” and in the fluctuation of instruments dropping in and out in each section.
Sleep takes a risk by opening with a chorus, which pays off in cementing the hook early on. Easily the most synth driven of the EP, a myriad of arps and lush keyboard lines do the heavy lifting in driving the song while Pilbeam croons about a dream in which she and a lover say all that they cannot admit when they are awake, “you don’t have to speak out loud, you can say it in your sleep, just come see me in my dreams, no wonder I’m smiling in my sleep”.
The consistent presence of a real drum kit throughout the EP is noteworthy, given that electronic drums would have been a more natural choice given the prevalent electronic soundscapes. They provide a welcome textural contrast that prevents Pilbeam from being pigeon holed as a sole pop artist. In the title track Sugar And Spice in particular, the open high-hats play a salient role in driving the chorus and provide a necessary contrast to the verses.
Admittedly, at times the lyrical content of the EP fails to deliver the same punch that the music does. The songs would benefit from some edge, be it in the lyrics or the vocal performance, which would render them more engaging and accessible to a wider audience. There is an inherent transparency in the songs that leaves little to the imagination. Pop music fans in 2018 are accustomed to busy production techniques and new musical elements being introduced in each section, yet Pilbeam recycles the same structure and instrumentation in most songs. While this can cause the untrained listener to lose focus, it is refreshing to see an artist restrict themselves to set instrumentation and work within those constraints.
Try certainly merits a place on the EP given that it is arguably the song that jumpstarted Pilbeam’s whole career; after uploading the song to Triple J in 2017 (Australia’s equivalent of BBC Introducing), the song racked up thousands of plays within a day and prompted phone calls from managers all over the world seeking to work with the 25-year old. The song sees Pilbeam attempt to salvage a relationship gone sour amidst a colourful background of acoustic guitars and a hypnotic synth melodies.
One constant within the EP is Pilbeam’s seemingly boundless optimism; despite the subject of failed love seeping into most songs, she relentlessly seeks the best in each situation and places it in front of a resolving chord progression, “I know you wanna try, I can feel it in your sigh”. The music rarely correlates directly with the subject matter.
Pilbeam seems to come into her own towards the latter half of the EP, leaving the best until last with Bad Guy. There is a welcome ambiguity in the song that the rest of the EP slightly lacks, it rivals Carly Rae Jepsen in songwriting craft and style and channels Chvrches’ Lauren Mayberry in the vocal performance. Unlike the other songs, Bad Guy opens sparsely and builds gradually to a climactic final chorus before cascading backing vocals and tambourines see the song out, “Oh babe, I’m backwards and I don’t feel good, I’m watching you back away”. The song is proof of the fact that sometimes less is more, and hopefully Pilbeam will explore similar approaches to arranging in future.
‘Sugar And Spice’ is an ambitious debut. While it certainly asserts her as an exciting new artist, it is important that Pilbeam builds upon both the attention that this EP has garnered as well as the momentum that she has gathered from recent performances at SXSW and The Great Escape in order to maintain her growing status. Granted her next steps are carefully and strategically executed, Hatchie may very well still give dream pop a new lease of life.