With their sophomore release, Pala, Friendly Fires manages to oust any uncertainties hanging over their pop sensibilities once and for all. This is unmistakably a full-blown pop record, residing in a sugared hinterland that takes its cues from Prince, George Michael, and the like. The album’s mid-May release is wholly appropriate, as this buoyant collection is seemingly tailor-made to soundtrack summer, taking the pulsing arrangements of the St. Albans outfit’s 2008 debut to some faraway party where the sun shines around the clock.
Though the stylistic merits of ‘80s are often called into question, someone obviously didn’t send the memo to Ed Macfarlane and company, as the band embraces the staples of the decade’s most bubbly pop ditties: Macfarlane slips in and out of a fevered falsetto on tracks like “Running Away”; “Hawaiian Air” and “Blue Cassette” smack of giddy Ibizan euphoria; and “Hurting” and “True Love” are built on irresistibly funky slap basslines reminiscent of Duran Duran’s “Rio.”
The first half of the record is choc-a-bloc with sumptuous dance numbers, all of which will likely have listeners clamoring for their cocktails and sunglasses. From here, though, the title track ushers in a somewhat unwelcome change of pace and shift in theme. The odes to exotic vistas make way for Macfarlane’s pining for an unrequited love through some comparatively somber balladry, a mode which Friendly Fires don’t wear quite so well. “Helpless” and “Pull Me Back to Earth” are dreary, hindered by their humdrum lyrics and overly slushy refrains. When the trio crafts soundscapes that sound like they should be blaring from speakers in sun-kissed vistas, Pala is terrific. So it’s a shame that Macfarlane’s ex had to turn up and spoil the party.