BLIND TASTE TEST: New Young Pony Club – The Optimist

It’s blind taste test time again. This time around James has set Tom the challenge of reviewing New Young Pony Club’s “The Optimist” after just one listen…

Dear Tom,

In 2007 NYPC were my favourite band. For a while their first album, Fantastic Playroom, seemed to be everywhere – on an IBM advert, the background music on Sky Sports. It was both a blessing and a curse that they were so massively hyped and became wrapped up in the faddy AF new rave scene that they never wanted a part of.

By 2010, new rave was disposed of as easily as it was made on the “borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered 80s” that LCD Soundsystem so keenly observed.

But in 2010 NYPC had released an arguably better second album. Sadly, it got mixed reviews and little attention. I saw them at Bestival later that year and they seemed almost visibly upset about it. The small crowd tried to reassure them.

The Optimist deserved so much more attention. It was much smarter, grown up, reflective and perceptive that its predecessor. While Fantastic Playroom screamed, dressed in glitter and glowsticks, under the brightest lights, it lurked seductively in the shadows

We had fun with Fantastic Playroom but The Optimist had something to say about life, relationships, how they’d been judged and how times had changed.

Nobody’s going to say it was a classic, but I picked it out of the shortlist because it was so underrated. I want to hear what you think a decade later, free from scenes and hype.

It can’t go worse than Pinkerton, can it?

James

Urgh, new rave. I know, you’re only mentioning it to distinguish New Young Pony Club from that scene, but even the association has me mildly concerned. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve ended up isolating in my hometown, but I clearly remember Sixth Form parties soundtracked by the hard rotation of Klaxons, Hadouken! and CSS. This wasn’t regional indie rock or serious post-punk! It had (gasp) synthesizers and drum machines! (Oh god, maybe it was me that was the problem.)

Anyway, let’s see if NYPC were rightly tarnished by association or indeed wrongly overlooked. There’s no better time to “lurk seductively in the shadows” than this gloriously sunny Easter weekend. (And no, it can’t go worse than Pinkerton which of course is a self-loathing, unfiltered classic.)

Opener “Lost A Girl” starts with what can only be described as a killer bassline that immediately grabs me and shows within seconds that this lot have a gift for rhythm. Tahita Bulmer’s deadpan vocals kick in (later research reveals that she has a contralto voice which is the lowest female vocal register, which quite possibly accounts for the deadpan effect) – they sound almost like spoken word over the verses. There’s a certain quirk to the deadpan delivery – its distinctive style tends to mean it requires strong lyrics to back it up. Here it works: the hook, “looks like you’ve lost a girl”, is engagingly simple and it’s easy to imagine a festival crowd singing the “ooh ooh oohs”. A strong start.

“Chaos” is similarly gripping. The danceable instrumentation steadily escalates and the faint guitar in the background reminds me of another ostensibly dance-punk oriented band, The Rapture. I’m enjoying how tight the rhythm section sounds on this; fittingly for the song’s title, it’s at once chaotic yet well-drilled, like Silent Alarm-era Bloc Party. It’s a thumbs up from me so far.

There’s no fat on “Chaos”, it ends just at the right time without any unnecessary outro, and another hooky bassline kicks off the title track. Its length and title already suggest that this is an important piece of the record, and we get a longer intro to prepare us for the big statement. Bulmer’s lyrics – which I confess, totally passed me by on the first two tracks – seem cryptic (“we’ve had our fill and the glass is empty”), suggestive of the relationship between big nights out and the reality of mornings after. Again, I like it, but its length makes it less immediate than the opening tracks and it’d require more delving into the lyrics to see if this is justified.

After this lengthier number, “Stone” gives us a welcome change of pace. A wobbly synth enters before anything else and when the drums come in, the beat is softer than before which is a nice touch. Here, as before though, the music is more enjoyable than the words that accompany it. The hook, “stone, that’s what you are” seems overly simplistic and I’m not sure that there’s much below the surface here.

The record really dips with the next two tracks. Both “We Want To” and “Dolls” sound like the songs that are normally picked as lead singles – simple hooks, nothing too experimental. The strength of that rhythm section mean that it’s hard not to tap your feet to all of these songs, but “We Want To” has this squelchy keyboard refrain which is the song’s achilles heel and “Dolls” has various examples of clunky lyricism – “you’ve lost the plot but your map is medieval” for example.

But things pick up again with “Before The Light”. A simple guitar riff and Bulmer’s wistful vocals give the track a slower mood which works well as a contrast to the post-punk of the last couple of songs. The lyrics are still ambiguous (“don’t look at me now, look at my intellect / the things I leave behind like footsteps”) but they sound pleasantly poetic on this one. (And it has suddenly occurred to me that none of this album sounds like new rave, so you know, fair play.)

Once again it’s time to praise NYPC’s bassist and drummer on “Oh Cherie” who once again rhythmically ground this track. A rising and falling keyboard adds texture and Bulmer’s “Oh Cherie” hook and “da-da-das” sit nicely on the instrumentation, similarly to “Lost A Girl” earlier (further research tells me that both of these songs featured on the Gossip Girl soundtrack – it seems that I’m not alone in feeling the immediacy of these songs). I’m still humming it as I pause to get a drink.

The repetition of “ah-hah-higher” on penultimate track “Rapture” again seems ready for those big crowds that didn’t materialise, but I’m not entirely sure how the words relate to the verse’s lyrics about the interior vs. exterior versions of ourselves. But maybe it doesn’t matter – it’s catchy like most of these songs and I can certainly see how a newly-graduated James ‘Let’s Hit The Bar Then The Dancefloor’ Spearing would find a fondness for this band and this record.

“Architect of Love” encapsulates the strengths and weaknesses of this album in miniature. Another killer bassline, more dodgy lyrics (“this was broken from the start, the blueprint had no art”) and at nearly five minutes, it does start to get slightly tedious. But maybe there’s greater depth to all of these songs on repeated listens. From this first impression, NYPC’s strengths appear to be musical; they’re a band with hooks for days and whether or not there’s more to The Optimist than propulsive basslines and pounding drums James, I’m surprised they didn’t fill dancefloors at least.

 

Words by Tom Burrows.

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