Clean Bandit: New Eyes review – featherweight pop dance with delusions of classical grandeur

They think they can save dance music but have no hooks, songs or lyrics – just dodgy string arrangements

Listen to an exclusive stream of the album here

As befits a band currently riding high – their single Rather Be is the fastest-selling of the year so far – the debut album by Clean Bandit opens bullishly. The first thing you hear is a cocksure defence of dance music against those who would decry it as lightweight or meaningless: the same people, presumably, that Rolling Stone magazine was targeting when it released that online advert claiming that house, techno et al were but a passing fad, destined to wither any moment in the face of "real music". This seems a remarkably optimistic hypothesis, given that it's nearly 30 years since Jack Your Body made No 1, but there's presumably somebody out there thick enough to believe it, and Clean Bandit have them in their sights. "So you think electronic music is boring? You think it's stupid? You think it's repetitive?" asks a sneering voice on the intro to Mozart's House, the implication being that even the most benighted soul, steadfast in the hoary belief that disco still sucks, will have their mind changed by what follows.

Alas, what follows is a featherweight pop-dance track, decorated with ropey rapping and a couple of chunks of Mozart's String Quartet No 21. It's hard to avoid the dispiriting feeling that Clean Bandit believe the latter is the real clincher in their argument that dance music is neither boring nor stupid: elsewhere on New Eyes, they do something similar with a bit of Dvorák, while tracks such as A&E arrive laden with quasi-classical string arrangements of the quartet's own composition.

It's not merely that all this carries with it the implicit and faintly insulting suggestion that, after 30 years in which it's variously functioned as a euphoric voice for disenfranchised minorities, permanently altered the face of popular culture and been deemed such a threat to the fabric of society that a Tory government felt impelled to legislate against it, dance music is only truly validated by sticking a bit of classical music over the top of it. The other problem is that it's really clunkily done: it's certainly not impossible to meld dance and classical music – Rob D's Clubbed to Death sampled the Enigma Variations, Carl Craig and Moritz Von Oswald's ReComposed was based on works by Ravel and Mussorgsky – but you have to be rather more artful about it than this. Mozart's House sounds less like the perfect rebuttal to dance music's naysayers than something you might hear at the climax of a CBBC drama, the camera cutting to the crusty old music teacher in the audience – hitherto implacable in his loathing of pop – appreciatively nodding his head and tapping his foot when the strings kick in.

Clearly aware that the classical thing might be viewed as gimmicky, they have a lot of other ideas, some of which are intriguing. But they're let down by their execution. Come Over pitches a cut-glass female voice against the dancehall vocals of Stylo G: it would be an interesting juxtaposition, were it not for the fact that they're both engaged in singing a song that seems to be going out of its way to drive you up the wall.

Dust Clears has a fantastic moment about 90 seconds in, when Swedish singer-songwriter Noonie Bao's voice appears over a weirdly clipped, minimal take on a two-step garage beat: it's 30 seconds of charming idiosyncrasy lost amid an otherwise generic pop-house track. Similarly, there's a lot going on in the recent single Extraordinary – steel drums, pizzicato strings, rumbling timpani, cut-up vocal samples, chattering electronics – but you'd never notice, partly because the production is so polite and anaemic that it saps the constant musical shifts of their power, and partly because it's all buried underneath another rotten song, this time a kind of uplifting Emile Sandé-esque ballad: the result is about as extraordinary as branch of Tesco Express.

Not for the last time, you wonder if New Eyes might have worked better as an instrumental album. For a band so clearly aimed squarely at the pop charts rather than the dancefloor – almost everything clocks in around three minutes – Clean Bandit are oddly short on hooks: the choruses of Cologne and Rather Be have a sparkle to them, but that's about it.

The lyrics are uniformly awful: indeed, by the time you reach the unpromisingly titled Telephone Banking, you wonder if they're supposed to be funny. That song deals with the admittedly unique topic of heartbreak brought about not by infidelity or unrequited love, but by the fateful decision to take a Tefl course. "You're teaching in Japan … you've got another man," complains vocalist Love Ssega, his assurances that it's all "cool" undermined by his eagerness to offer a tantalising glimpse of the aesthetic pleasures that await her if she abandons the expatriate life and returns to his side: "I've grown, check my clothes, I wear chinos, oh, I'm such a lovely man."

Clean Bandit might rightly point out that generic songs, polite production and galumphing references to classical music seem to have served them pretty well thus far. Perhaps that tells you more about the insatiable public appetite for pop-house in the wake of Disclosure's success than it does about Clean Bandit: that said, New Eyes features a handful of moments that suggest they're capable of making a far more interesting album than this. For now, though, the chances of New Eyes convincing dance music's naysayers of the error of their ways seem slim to say the least.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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