Pala – Friendly Fires (2011)

Pala album cover
Pala album cover

The arrival of spring means that its time to start thinking about more upbeat music. For me the transition from the melancholy of winter to brighter and happier warmer weather has been a musical rite of passage for as long as I can remember.

To help facilitate my musical mood swings, I’ve gotten into the habit of going further with metatags for categorizing music. Cloud based music services like Pandora and GrooveShark do a good job of this, but I’m anti-cloud and don’t want to be tied to the internet to get my musical fixes.

Meta tags are cues for media players to separate music by genre, artist, album etc. While many of the tags are supplied by your download source or the Gracenote DB, you can set some of your own in iTunes or any popular media player software. One of the categories I have been searching by recently is ‘happy’.

Few bands are as happy sounding as Friendly Fires. They are so upbeat and full of youth juice, that I would have figured them to be from California, there’s seems to be nothing particularly English about their bright disposition. Friendly Fires has been heard over the years on video game scores, a soundtrack (Kaboom) and commercials, perhaps to an indifferent audience. They also have released a string of singles and EPs. The few albums they have released have sounded so different, it’s as if the band could not decide on a sound. Despite all the stylistic changes one thing was consistent. The music was always hyper bright and happy.

The opening line of Pala sums up the band’s rosy disposition towards the past. “Born too late to see the golden age…” from ‘Live Those Days Tonight” suggests that the days of cassette mix tapes and actual person to person communication was a novelty of the past. It’s from this perspective that makes Pala nostalgically charming to listen to.

Lead singer Ed Macfarline under the guidance of producer Paul Epworth takes the exuberance and energy the band is known for and tames it into a series of upbeat catchy songs. Many of these songs like “Blue Cassette” start slow and explode like the bubblegum center of a Blowpop.

Pala is simply pop escapism at its best. Like a drug (or in my case ice cream), it can put you in a good mood all day. Even the most subtle and low-key of its songs like the title track is bubbling with enthusiasm. The albums four singles “Helpless”, “Blue Cassette”, “Hawaiian Air” and “Hurting” helped propel Pala to formidable chart positions in America and their native Britain.

The infectious beats and melodies are quite extraordinary in their consistency. The variety or refinement is pop superstar quality, although Friendly Fires continues to exist on the fringes of the mainstream in America at the moment, mostly because its been years since their last album.  Being on the fringes was not always the fate of the band.

The positive outlook of the songs means that even breakup songs sound happy. Of the happy themes, the concept of childhood discovery is persistent. “Hawaiian Air” reminds me of the joy of taking family vacations and being in a new place for the first time. It was that sense of childhood wonder that helped make Pala so popular.

While the band did score a top 30 album placement with Pala in 2011 they have not released a proper follow-up yet. The wait might be worth it. Lead vocalist Ed MacFarlane says that the next Friendly Fires album will be a darker more serious sounding affair. For now, the legacy of Pala has been that of high quality songs and production values. Like Young the Giant and too few other bands, Friendly Fires makes positive pop music where most are deep into the dark irony of sarcasm. Pala is great for now, but a lot of us are due for a dose of happy real soon. Oh the burden of raised expectations.

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