Montreal duo Blue Hawaii took roughly three years to turn in their long-awaited debut album, Untogether — long-awaited, that is, to anyone who’s already had the good fortune of having heard Blooming Summer, an inspired, addictive, and rather generously long (eight tracks) EP that appeared to effortlessly put any and all other electro-pop acts around to shame. Given both the amount of time and the fact that members Ag and Ra (of the equally excellent, but distinct Braids) haven’t released any material together since, it wouldn’t have been shocking if anything new would sound unrecognizable, but Untogether is undeniably the sound of Blue Hawaii — though having weathered the passage of time, for better or worse.
From the first moments of opener “Follow,” there is an immediately noticeable improvement in production quality, but along with it, there’s also a decidedly distinct reservation that would seem to (hopefully) hint at a more musically introspective approach rather than a claim to maturity. The overall effect may strike one as underwhelming, made all the more so by the jittery yet controlled restlessness of “Try To Be,” an album highlight to which one is tempted to measure the following tracks against. But only two songs in, and somewhat unexpectedly, the inclusion of the two-parter “In Two” — from the past EP — promises to pick things up, until the following track, “Sweet Tooth,” essentially establishes a standard for the remainder of the album: a solid collection of songs that shouldn’t put the talent of its writers in question, but that ultimately — and quite frustratingly — falls short of expectations, particularly when considered alongside those fomented by their past work.
But that’s the wrap-it-all-up-in-one-paragraph-or-less diagnosis. The truth is (also) that the Ag, the male half of Blue Hawaii, leaves much of his now seemingly gimmicky and generic electro-pop from Blooming Summer in the dust by impressively referencing various styles of electronic music — obscure and non — and as was quite evident on the EP, he continues his search for constructing and melding soundscapes as much as writing one-off dance-pop numbers. Tracks like “Califurnya” and “Nightskies” showcase Ag’s skill in employing some of the more unorthodox, so-called experimental, or “IDM,” strains of dance, while “Daisy” breaks and builds into hard synths reminiscent of what may have been heard off Palladium circa 1996. Suffice it to say, it’s the few and far between dance-oriented tracks that stand out from the more numerous soundscape/composition-oriented ones, winking confidently back at a younger, livelier Blue Hawaii from three years ago.
Ag and Ra reportedly recorded Untogether separately, but even this cannot explain a certain missing spark that seemed to be in abundance on Blooming Summer, despite their genuinely interesting explorations in the dance/pop/experimental realms of electronic music and what I would interpret as their appreciation of its history. But perhaps what is most obvious is that Untogether may have benefited from Blue Hawaii turning it up just a notch or two, particularly because it is their debut full-length — now their first major musical statement — and after having followed a work that seemed to have cemented their sound as well as their mien. For now, however, it’s too early to tell whether Untogether is an altogether welcome break with the past or not, but even if it turns out not to be, let’s hope it at least sets Blue Hawaii off into more interesting and perhaps animate directions in the near future.