I shouldn’t like Alt-J and ‘Breezeblocks’ for a number of reasons. In the first instance, their name is the (Mac!) keyboard command for producing that cute little delta after their name. Let’s just say me and Steve Jobs wouldn’t have gotten on. Secondly, there’s the fact that they’re so deliberately art-nouveau. Of the four-piece out of Leeds University, now living in Cambridge (UK), three of them were studying fine arts in school. That level of immersion in critically thinking about any sort of art form usually leads to the sort of turgid, self-aggrandising behaviour that will sink a band before it can say ‘debut’. I enjoy the odd intertextual reference (‘put Sufjan Stevens on…’) and can stomach the Maurice Sendak nod on this track – just – but generally prefer if incessant name-dropping and cultural referencing is left to the genre that champions it: hip hop. Lastly, there’s that little niggling point that this song is, essentially, all about particularly brutal homicide. Artsy, Apple-loving serial killers. Guest blogger Jordan Smith might’ve liked them. We got off on the wrong foot.
Hesitant to involve myself with the band after having seen their name floating around for a couple of months now (as if the delta wasn’t enough, they had to use the abbreviation for ‘alternative’ in their moniker!), the lads, now garnering considerable support from homeland crowds that led one reviewed to draw parallels with Radiohead, have grown on me. Interestingly, it’s the last of the above three potentially fatal aspects for our relationship (excuse the pun) that was the last to repel me. Much like Foster The People’s sensationally underplayed ‘Pumped Up Kicks‘ (about a kid with murderous thoughts for all his Reebok-boasting mates), ‘Breezeblocks’ doesn’t initially recommend itself as a song about drowning your lover in a bath using a concrete masonry unit – which, in fact, it is. But just as with Mark Foster’s jingle-packaged homage to Columbine, don’t let the lyrical content put you off this band. They might be wackos, but they do wackness well.
As with every Next Big Thing coming out of Britain (and, for that matter, pretty much anywhere), the media’s natural inclination is to try to define them by reference to their influences. If anything, on initial impressions, they seem to have a knack for producing the kind of slightly unhinged, ocasionally unsettling alternative rock that Foals have endorsed across two stellar albums. But where Alt-J so successfully traverses great swathes of contemporary rock and folk and yes, even hip-hop (those drums! that breakdown at 2’15″!) with one song, it becomes a bit more difficult to pin them and their debut ‘An Awesome Wave’ down. Their oddball changeability – as evidence particularly by the meandering, quirky vocals of frontman Joe Newman and the fact that Thom Green, on drums, uses a saucepan for a cymbal – captivates as much as it ostracises. On first listening to ‘Breezeblocks’, I found myself falling in and out of love with the track after almost every stanza. Stick with it, though, through the gruesome imagery and whatnot. Strangeness demands patience and patience, here, is rewarded.
Alt-J (∆) – Breezeblocks