Pop review: Empire of the sun, Walking on a Dream


Second acts are rare in the lives of guitar bands. When a widely touted new act is found to have previous form, the announcement is generally greeted in industry circles like pleas for more gruel from a leprous Oliver Twist.

Indie-pop Lazaruses are the exception, not the rule - members of Franz Ferdinand had paid their dues on the Glasgow toilet circuit for years before hitting on their foppish formula for success. And the Kaisers Chiefs ploughed an undistinguished furrow as grunge also-rans Parva before morphing into the Bash Street Kids with shout-a-long choruses.

Luke Steele is the baby-faced half of mind-expanding Sydney duo Empire of the Sun, and sometime brainchild of acclaimed psychedelia act the Sleepy Jackson, best known for their 2003 album Lovers. A gifted songwriter, the Perth-born musician is too much of a known quantity to fit the recidivist mould made popular by his forebears, but the burning ambition remains.

His latest vehicle is a collaboration with Nick Littlemore of Latin-influenced dance combo Pnau, born in part from Steele's acknowledgement that the Sleepy Jackson have "had their day in the sun" and canny in its embrace of the zeitgeist. Their debut is at times almost unbearably slick, recalling MGMT in its creamy falsettos, global village sentiment and ludicrous sleeve design.

But away from these more garish tones, the record settles upon a cooler hue, favouring minor-key shuffles that, at their best, sound like prime Bangles cuts, but tend towards pedestrian 1980s pop hackery at their worst.

Highlights include Standing on the Shore, which is stripped down and purposeful next to the languid synths elsewhere, and Swordfish Hotkiss Night, which delves into weird electro territory with perversely agreeable results. That said, it's a pretty thin effort from a man whose best work is as layered and intricate as a psychedelic wedding cake.

The album's surfaces gleam, but its flower-power proselytising never quite dispels the notion of Empire of the Sun as MGMT copyists with pretensions. Which raises the question: at what price the second act?

• Download Standing on the Shore; Swordfish Hotkiss Night

Alex Denney

The GuardianTramp

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