Straw-man time: If it’s hard to make a truly bad dream-pop album, it’s equally tricky to make a really good one, and for identical reasons. The essential ingredients are the same in either case. You need reverb, introspection and hazy melodies that evoke ’60s pop. How you fit them together is what makes all the difference.
Australian-born Los Angeles transplant Hazel English puts those elements to use in service of 10 songs that glide by comfortably on her full-length debut, Wake UP!. It’s a respectable enough effort, full of chiming guitars and sleek vocals as English delivers lyrics that parse feelings of isolation and explore power dynamics from romantic relationships to capitalism. Despite the sometimes fraught subject matter, her songs are engaging and pleasant, as well as a reminder to be present and engaged with herself and the world around her. They also feel more fussed-over than the EPs she released in 2016 and 2017, which had an immediacy these songs sometimes lack.
The title track rides along on resonant chugging guitar and a snare-drum part that has the tone of quick bursts of static. English maneuvers through breathy verses to echo herself on the chorus with a refrain she sings in a sweet, clear voice. Elsewhere, she surrounds herself with wordless backing vocals on “Five and Dime,” finger snaps accentuating the beat through the verses. Flickers of bright guitar help propel the chorus, which downshifts into a broad melody that opens up the song and gives it a sense of flow.
English wrestles with insecurity on “Off My Mind,” fearing to tell someone how she really feels while recognizing that he doesn’t treat her well—a toxic combination that has her frozen in place. She leans hard into the sound of ’60s California pop with double-tracked vocals and jangly guitars that evoke touchstone groups of that era like the Byrds or the Mamas and the Papas. English puts a more distinctive spin on that style on “Shaking” with a palpitating guitar riff that frames her voice as it rises and falls through lyrics expressing a desire to cut loose: “Water’s deep / But I’m already half in,” she sings.
As catchy as English’s songs can be in the moment, not much about them lingers on afterward. There’s little from this album that sticks in your head the way top-flight dream-pop songs do: “Here’s Where the Story Ends” by the Sundays, for example, or “Star Roving” by Slowdive or even “Other Lives” from English’s Just Give In/Never Going Home double-EP in 2017—tunes you find rattling around in your brain when you wake up in the middle of the night for a drink of water. After demonstrating intimacy and charm on her earlier material, English shows with Wake UP! that she’s capable of making a bright, big-sounding album. Once she gets around to combining those sensibilities, well, look out.
Wake UP! is out Friday, April 24 on Polyvinyl.
Eric R. Danton has been contributing to Paste since 2013, and writing about music and pop culture for longer than he cares to admit. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.