A lot of pop or rock-lenient releases (that aren't utterly inclined to focus on, say, substantial content) of the 2010s have become victim to what I feel stands as the new trope to album art as of late: cropped visuals amid a blank background. The idea that what we'll find on the record in question is, like the image: a concise, compact, culmination of tone and texture in its own right, leaves me unfortunately to think the album is anything but some meager attempt to fashion itself as designed or fashioned for something. Still Corners may have fallen victim to this artifice of presentation and alignment, but unlike a lot of their dream-slash-electro pop counterparts, 2010's Creatures Of An Hour for the London two-piece was a just looking-into for any curious visually-quenching eyes. And despite my initial suspicions - again in reference to another key visual style taking up a large portion of the non-mainstream multi-genre pop market nowadays - the cover to 2013's Strange Pleasures is a precarious nod towards said trope, as it is a possible hint to the English duo finally making their mark in the scene. Where 2010 saw Still Corners' Tessa Murray archetype a colourful and blissful field of emotion, and fellow band-mate Greg Hughes' carefully instrumenting lush sounds to meet Murray half-way - the kind of sounds fans of the likes of Beach House would recognize well - the album's short-but-precise abridging of ideas (while admittedly a drawback to the record's longevity) definitely gave some potential, and thus the excitement, that with more fleshed-out direction and greater-built compositions, the two-piece could shine amid the blissful haze of dream pop.
On face value, the presence of longer track lengths alongside the recognizable three-minute stances, gives me an aspired belief that there's decent level of development present here. And as we get going, the duo do not disappoint. Opening track The Trip is not only a greatly exploratory offering to kick things off, but it's an intriguing introduction to what later reveals as a vaster choice of instruments that Still Corners bring to the forefront. Where we're welcomed into the setting with spacious twinkling of synth arpeggios, it's the guitars - first the steady acoustic strums and then Hughes' additional sprung of electric variants afterwards - that adds more depth and direction to Corners' sound. So already, the duo have widened their parameters, and if Murray's vocals are anything to go by, the breadth continues to increase. Here, her vocals are more concrete and clear for the listener to both hear and recognize. There's more of a momentum taking place than there is a simple phase. The instrumentation is more free-flowing; it's clear and it's crisp and it suits Murray's slightly passive delivery quite well. 'So many miles...' she repeats, at times brushing against the sprawling rhythm of the piece, and in others allowing the old western-like vibe of electric guitars an even spaciously open texture. For a six-minute opener, it shows the pair working towards rhythm and relation as opposed to texture and colour.
Likewise, Beginning To Blue in its polynomial tip-toeing of pace and tone, where the atmosphere of the track is weighed by its setting (as opposed to its sheer mass of production and effects). Murray's delivery too carries more a recognizable gestural than simply some immeasurably ethereal vibe. But it's the way the organic and synthetic of sounds meet - especially with how the shadowed percussion and sweeping synthesizer notes marry together - that ends up emanating itself as more physical in presence than simply surreal or dreamy in sense. I Can't Sleep follows in the same emotional context as being this downtempo, rising-up meeting of its listener, but the duo still manage to offer this sense of gracious withdrawal from reality, in the same way they keep their feet firmly on the ground with their assortment of instrumentation. The steady, stripped percussion hits; the windy relaying of synths; the spreadable flattening of piano chords; the finger-thin plucks of keys. They all contain in themselves that familiar coaxing of lofty texture and translucency. But the clarity and almost physically touchable presence coming through in tits execution and production, adds an even more viably suited human quality to the song.
Of course there are still moments on this record where the inevitable emotion and whimsical air of the more synthesized sounds come into full effect. Where Hughes' decisions are inclined in shifting back to the relationship between individual sounds, this doesn't necessarily provide any unwelcome drawbacks, or even evident precautions. Fireflies is one of those moments of perfection where the crisp tones and melting quality to textures, offer us no less than a kind of fulfilled outer-body wonderment - hence, the very sound this sub-field of pop is good at deciphering into audible form. The synthesizers here manage to draw a convincing line between reality and surreality, yet remain treading that line. But it's a task it accomplished with ease as, all the while, alongside the rub of bass synths and distant-heartfelt percussion, Murray's delivery of this hopeful, wandering joy she's expressing, is met with immediate conviction. The way the cymbals sweep into the choral points especially, as if lifting her voice from off the ground - reaching skywards through the rise in drum emphasis on brightening synth notes - is what gives the song an immensely colourful, but perspective relation to one's line of thought within.
The meeting of vocals and sound then, becomes the album's key, underlying ingredient for success and, ultimately, it's downfall in places. The realization that most of these tracks still aren't in refusal to move away from this mandatory reminding us of the song's lack in earthly surroundings, does reduce the amount of interchangeable scope this album can have. Also, while Still Corners do remain diligently demonstrative in exploring the use of more physical instruments and synths not totally devoid of clarity or transparency, there remains a lingering question and lack of attention to the more mechanically engineered of elements in these songs, such as progression and conveyance to its listener. Where Berlin Lovers offers up a very intriguing rhythm via its more punchy, fruitful synthesizer tones, I'm not entirely convinced that the duo put as much emphasis into giving the track a deserved signatory 'end'. There's a point just over half-way where the electronics greatly increase in vibrancy and become almost unreserved in focusing in on their textural flare. At this point you'd expect perhaps the music to begin leading into something more grand and hard-hitting. So the fact that the track follows by simmering down and not really closing the piece off, doesn't exactly flatter or even leave me feeling satisfied. Future Age does have a clear sign of boldness and direction in how immediate and full the layer of sounds come off. So it's slightly disappointing that I don't get the same confident vibes - or to put in a more refined context, the same level of conviction - in Murray's delivery as a vocalist; here, her voice is rather drowned in the music, yet she shows no real thrust or indication to be heard or recognized. Even if the sounds do irrefutably want to express that similar field of hazy, partially visible atmospherics, there are moments - especially where songs at their most crucial - where the choice in tone doesn't eventually lead or direct itself to the listener in an effective fashion.
Still Corners' skill (and new-found skills for that matter) lie in their greater exploration of composition and arranging their sounds to meet each others strengths. Beatcity's pompously mechanical rhythm and city-like nightly vibes are without question one of the better visualizing songs of the album. And with Murray's swift, sailing vocals, the energizing pace comes across clearly and concise for both music and voice alike to convey. Midnight Drive could have been a solid reason for convincing us the longer song structures indeed trump the older style. However, where the pattern of guitar strums and bass tones do create a compelling conflicting of intensity and setting to the song, it's the production treatment of the electronics - the choral-like synthesizers and the foggier offerings enshrouding the sounds from all around - that let it down, inevitably leaving the track with less progression and confining what solid presence the physical instrumentation might have been trying to project, in a sort of faceless ambiguity. With the title track closing the album, the ambition and similar level of intricacy shown on the opening definitely reappears, but it's presented a lot more through sound and texture, as opposed to the bettering of integration of said sounds. The bass-like percussion does give some welcome strength and backbone to the music, and the switching of synthesizer tones - and how they come across as being far more distanced and networked to one another - does create some interesting passages in-between, but again I can't help but question the lengths to which these elements are swelled or inflated so as to emphasize the surroundings, rather than prioritize the quality of delivery.
It's not for the first time, and without question not a rarity, that an album such as this falters at times for choosing an upscale of sound, in order to achieve higher atmospheric value. While I commend Still Corners for exploring more open styles of song-writing and broadening their palette with clearer guitar usage and crisper synthesizers, there still unfortunately remains that recurrent problem of making their textural deliveries wider and more engrossing, to the point that it costs the track its plausibility into why it needs such ambitious hunger. As is a great many benefit for this sub-genre, here, these unfortunate moments are born not from deliberate ignorance, but from human curiosity and the need to convey emotion amid the clarity, or lack thereof, of such far-flung ideals. In that respect, Strange Pleasures transfigures a lot of the borrowed aesthetic, into something the London duo capably withhold as being naturally present and relating to the here-and-now. And where the sounds the duo exercise are of the complete opposite nature - of lesser fixed and of the more hazed withdrawal - the way Tessa Murray manages to offer herself as both the individual, and the emotional stimuli behind the music's connectivity, shows just how much engagement this sound still holds; a sign perhaps that Still Corners' own measure of electronically-flavoured sounds, is heading in a promising direction. And more promising, it hasn't entirely lost itself to the clouds.