Big Balloon, the fifth studio album of the band Dutch Uncles, is an odd one. Lead singer Duncan Wallis states in an interview that with this album, the band has returned to some of it’s earlier influences, including Talking Heads. It shows. The entire album is very much Talking Heads run through a level of Phoenix, music that deliberately calls back to the 1980s while simultaneously acting as middle of the road modern indie pop. This leaves an odd final product: never has something sounded so fresh and so dated at the same time. At times, this fresh/dated dichotomy is distracting: I had to give “Oh Yeah,” one of the first singles off the album, multiple listens because I couldn’t place what precise 1980s band the song reminded me of (it was Oingo Boingo, by the way).
Throughout the album, Dutch Uncles experiment with style, tempo, and what I’m calling incongruence. More often than not, the vocals and the instrumentals never quite meet. They’re in different time signatures, one track is syncopated while the other isn’t, or some other method keeps the two lines out of balance. Songs like “Achameleon” take this to the extreme, where the piano line occasionally syncs up with the vocals which barely syncs up with the strings. The whole effect is jittery and disjointed in a purposeful way. And, to Dutch Uncles’ credit, this jittery and disjointedness never sounds bad. They manage to make perfectly good songs that just have a tendency to not line up properly. It’s certainly an interesting effect, one that I imagine involves a lot of technical precision on all fronts.
A hallmark of the band’s style, this incongruence is something you’re either going to love or hate. Thankfully, if you really dislike the incongruence, Dutch Uncles have a few play by numbers tracks that stick closer to an established indie pop formula. The opening track and lead single “Big Balloon” gives a light, energetic start for the album. It’s bright, cheery, and fun, a perfect way to kick off the album if not 100% representative of what the album actually contains. It’s a smart choice for both opening track and lead single, commercially viable but hinting slightly at some of the album’s unique gimmicks.
Personally? My opinion on their style falls somewhere in the middle. In a three-minute dose brought to you by an individual song, the incongruence is welcome. An individual song can have the bassline, guitar riffs, synth riffs, drums, and vocals all on a different rhythm and yet still sound like a good SONG. But an entire album of atypical time signatures and instrument lines that never quite meet wears out it’s welcome quick. What started off as unique and innovative becomes gimmicky when you reach the album’s halfway point.
With regards to Dutch Uncles, phrases such as “quirky” and “weird” often get used to describe their music. Big Balloon has a hint of that quirky weirdness but more often than not, except for the time signature gimmick, plays it annoyingly safe.