You have to wonder if Django Django would like, in playground parlance, a “do over.”
The London-based quartet made a pretty big splash in 2012 with its self-titled debut album, an oddly addictive fusion of fluttery pop, psych, art-rock and electronic music that earned lots of positive reviews and a Mercury Prize nomination.
Its follow-up, Born Under Saturn, landed less softly in 2015. It’s not a disaster by any stretch of the imagination, it just lacks the airy feel and restless spirit of the debut. Put it this way: Even opening track “Giant” — one of the best songs on the sophomore effort — goes on too long.
Django Django seems to know this. According to press materials, new album Marble Skies “recalls their dynamic, genre-blurring debut” and was made using a “back-to-basics approach in line with the DIY ethos of the band’s early days.” They’ve ditched the big fancy studio approach of Saturn and retreated to a small, cluttered space where they could refocus on the “handmade, cut-and-paste” style of Django Django.
The question, then, is how does Marble Skies sound? In terms of overall scope and tone, it’s closer to the debut than Saturn. The title track bounces along at warp speed, fitted with a heavenly hook in the chorus and a surprising and satisfying robot-voiced bridge. “Real Gone” starts off as a synth-soaked soundtrack for interstellar travel before settling into a brisk bleep-bloop groove.
Highlights include two tracks that mesh into one song—“Beam Me Up” and “In Your Beat”—and successfully explore two sides of Django Django. The former is relatively dark and heavy for this band, which means more distortion, melancholic synths and a foreboding hip-hop-ish beat. It leads right into the latter, which quickly reverses course, points skyward and blasts off into one of this band’s catchiest songs. Which is saying something, considering its chorus essentially consists of five notes, one held across four full measures by vocalist Vincent Neff. It’s a simple melody, but it’s entrancing.
Elsewhere, Django Django spends its time pushing their sound into new directions, with varying results. “Tic Tac Toe” sounds like a krautrock band composed a theme song for television Western. “Further” is a valiant attempt at London-white-dude-synth-blues that never quite lifts off. “Champagne” is a so-so juxtaposition of dubby electro-funk and Neff’s wispy falsetto; closing track “Fountains” improves on that formula by taking more rhythmic risks.
Marble Skies is at its best, however, where Django Django pushes outward hardest and farthest — in two very different directions. On one end there’s “Sundials,” a beautiful ballad built atop a zig-zagging piano line that lifts the technical wizard’s hat off this band, offering a clear look at the human beings beneath. (The song’s jazzy, harmony-heavy coda is a delight, too.) On the other end is “Surface to Air,” a concoction of humid pop, hiccupping beats and guest vocals by Rebecca Taylor of the British band Slow Club. It is shockingly intoxicating, and it’s ready to slide into the upper reaches of the pop charts yesterday.
If that doesn’t sum up Django Django, I don’t know what does. They’re musical expeditionists and experimenters; sometimes they come back with brilliance, and other times they don’t. Good luck predicting when they’ll be which. It’s probably better to just enjoy their journey.