Review Summary: A Sturdy Comeback, On The Top Floor Of Dreamgaze, Low Ceilings
Sweet Trip don’t get an introduction anymore: their online footprint has attained autonomy. It makes its own introductions, secures its own legacy and requires a very delicate attitude for constructive engagement on a critical basis. Let’s see what we can do: failing an introduction, you can have story-so-far. Sweet Trip consists of Roby Borges and Valerie Cooper, who have earned a steep level of reverence for their various configurations of accessible dream-pop and shoegaze sounds with the mercurial depth of IDM. They’re solid, if straightforward songwriters and their atmospheres run deeper than water; their best work is phenomenal, their worst is respectable, and they more or less deserve the strange circuitous bubble of cyberhype that has spored over their sound. Loosely comparable to other hallowed-in-hindsight treasures such as Slowdive, Panchiko or maudlin of the Well, they’re as close as it comes to the Real Deal within and without those communities infamous for treating music as fantastical talking points. What a story it has been.
Now back with their first full-length since 2009’s dream-pop curio You Will Never Know Why
, Sweet Trip have gifted us with, arguably, the most important record of their career so far. The name Sweet Trip
carries a very different significance now compared to their previous outings at their respective times of release. Those have been retroactively canonised into their own institution and A Tiny House, In Secret Speeches, Polar Equals
faces steep pressure to validate each previous instance of the Sweet Trip sound on top of the high stakes of dragging the project into the present. From a legacy angle, they had relatively little to gain from a comeback record but, for perhaps the first time, a whole lot to live up to. The seedbed here is less a wonder what they’ll do next
and much more a hope it’ll sound as good as it always has
. Sweet Trip brought a broad audience together under the highest of hopes, but their sound in all its various guises charts such a range of styles that it’s hard to imagine people’s specific preferences being anything close to consistent; goodness knows how a comeback record would be expected to cater to that.
This perspective shouldn’t amount to more than flammy conjecture, and I neither know nor care whether it actually fed in the duo’s creative ethos, but A Tiny House…
indulges it to an almost suspicious degree. Whereas each of their previous records was an inspired departure from the one before, this is the point where the project turns around and opens the floodgates for anyone who just wanted more Sweet Trip, man
. What does this mean? What kind of Sweet Trip? All of it. It is here. Is A Tiny House…
an album or a candy store? Yes. Ever thought that You Will Never Know Why
’s perky pop songs were the project’s final form? “Walkers Beware!...” and “The Weight of Comfort…” are the second helpings you were craving. Screw that normie shit - you’d rather a Halica
-esque revival of Seefeel’s ambient shimmer-shimmer? “At Last A Truth That Is Real” will tide you over for days. Are you mindful of the fact that Sweet Trip’s biggest and bestest work Velocity : Design : Comfort
always comes out tops with its technicolour fusion of just about everything ever? “Chapters” recalls that album’s glitchy overload with glorious fidelity. You want it all at once? Phwoar boy, “Tiny Houses” is the opener of your dreams.
Perhaps this all sounds a little greatest-hits; it, uh, kinda is. A Tiny House…
is certainly impressive for the way it integrates the band’s entire body of work into a single cohesive tracklist, but I’m sceptical that it raises the bar on any of its precedent material. Take the album highlight “Chapters”: this track shows off Borges’ masterful fusion of acoustic shoegaze and electronic glitch with expert precision, but it in the context of past masterpieces such as “Dedicated” or “To All The Dancers…” it feels oddly reined in. Its pyrotechnic flourishes are astounding where they appear, but the track’s structure is too insistent on orbiting regulated verse patterns for these to seem anything more than just that: flourishes. Similar to how You Will Never Know Why
slightly sabotaged itself with its fixation on dream-pop plainform, A Tiny House…
is hampered by a focus on conventional songwriting that streamlines the band’s craft without really playing to many of their strengths.
This applies across the board, whether to “Chapters”, to the album’s blandest pop song “In Sound, We Found Each Other”, or to the Slowdive-worshipping “Eave Foolery Mill Five”, the gorgeous shoegaze outro of which feels a little hemmed in by the meticulous verse/chorus placement that precedes it, coming off as an obedient, relatively short-lived climax instead of the larger-than-life moment it verges on unfolding into. These tracks contain absolutely flooring sections with the potential to be standalone takeaways, but rather than expand on them to their fullest, the band are all too keen to harken back to a succinct, vocally-orientated songwriting formula that leaves most of the album’s best parts feel a little truncated. “The Weight of Comfort…”’s rich psychedelic swirl and “Randflit”’s “Roygbiv”-esque IDM excursion both benefit at least from a more dedicated structural treatment, and “Surviving A Smile“’s surprise take on saccharine nu-disco takes the verse/chorus approach in its stride better than most, but these land as fleeting exceptions on a tracklist swamped with good songs but deceptively short of truly great ones.
If the detail and contour of the band’s vast arsenal find themselves sanded down by this somewhat over-refined songwriting ethic, then it’s a double shame that they struggle to integrate some sections that do go a little off-piste. One of Velocity…
’s greatest triumphs was its incorporation of shamelessly flashy glitch flourishes into the smoothest of atmospheres, but A Tiny House…
frequently relegates these elements to track outros (“You”, “In Sound, We Found Each Other”) and the result is disappointing piecemeal. In a similar vein, the composite track “Polar Equals” amounts to little more than a flowery montage, a one-track guide to the band that fails to tell their tale with particular cohesion despite the excellence of its individual sections. None of these are particularly obtrusive on their own, but when you scale back and see the album’s seventy minutes as a mix of Borges and Cooper’s over-prominent root-octave vocal duets (ft. assorted bells and whistles) amidst transient texture exercises that rarely take flight, it’s hard not to catch a whiff of missed opportunity.
Let’s hold things there for a moment; the (very much justified) extraordinarily high standards I hold for this project are going to get misleading. A Tiny House…
is a wonderful album in its own right, shimmering, soothing and startling at the opportune moments and confirming all the wonderful things everyone already knew about Sweet Trip: that’s no mean feat, conservative a scope as it may be. Valerie Cooper still has an utterly perfect voice for dream-pop; Roby Borges’ fluency in engaging combinations of tones is still a force to be marvelled at. It doesn’t always channel them to their full potential, but this album is still a level of craft and aesthetic that only a tiny slither of remarkable artists can come anywhere close to (see my somewhat liberal Recommended album list, none of which land quite the same feelgood factor). The most frustrating moments here aren’t the fleeting ones that drop the ball, but the ones that border on dream-pop game changers only to default to something solid but less remarkable - or, if you like, the most underwhelming parts here are also the most impressive.
What a bind. This is no Gordian knot, but there’s a troublesome number of almosts
s at work. Need a Key Takeaway? You’re welcome: Sweet Trip are making music again: it sounds broadly as good as anything they’ve produced, and even if it hardly raises the bar for them, it at least teases that they clearly still have it in them to go there. That alone is cause for joy; that it also serves as an overall improvement on You Will Never Know Why
’s inconsistent tracklist and proclivity for ‘60s-inspired psych-pop noodling is an added bonus. At this point I think it’s entirely fair to Sweet Trip’s calibre and legacy to hold them to the highest critical standards, and y’know what? Even with one of their weaker albums, they don’t come out of it too badly.