Whyte Horses

Empty Words

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After releasing the stunningly good Pop or Not album in 2016, Whyte Horses settled in for a victory lap that included a series of extravagant live events and a version of the record sung by school children. The group's main thinker and musical melter Dom Thomas wasn't keen to repeat their debut's blueprint exactly on 2018's Empty Words. Instead of making another album that welded together swaggering funk, delicate French pop, funky breaks, and jangling folk rock, he and his collaborators did a makeover that didn't strip out any of the previous elements completely but lowered the French quotient a bit in favor of some more avant-garde and oddball touches. For every sweetly jangling, perfectly nuanced, very Pop or Not-sounding track like "Greatest Love in Town" or "Any Day Now," there's one that does something unexpected. The driving "Ecstasy Song" adds a little Germany-in-the-'70s feel to the record with its monomaniacal forward motion and the keening guitars. The mournful strings and drumless arrangement of "Nightmares Aren't Real" change the pace dramatically and bring some deep emotion on board, and the restrained, very precise electropop of "Fear Is Such A..." shows the band isn't stuck in the '60s as far as influences and sounds go. Another change is that instead of having Lispector's Julie Margat as main vocalist and trading on her innocent, almost artless style, Thomas brought in Audrey Pic, late of the Envelopes, to handle the bulk of the singing. She's maybe a touch more professional sounding that Margat, but her still-untrained voice gives the record the same intimate appeal Pop or Not exhibited. Also on board are Nouvelle Vague's Mélanie Pain, and Leonore Wheatley of the Soundcarriers and La Roux. The two tracks Pain takes the lead on -- "Never Took the Time" and "Watching TV" -- are lushly arranged songs, and her rich voice helps make them sound larger than life. La Roux takes the mike masterfully on the album's most immediate song, the soulfully strutting "Best of It," which would have fit nicely on an Amy Winehouse album. On this song, and everywhere on the rest of the album, Thomas directs the band like a topflight conductor or a master collagist, making sure every piece fits together perfectly. The arrangements are tighter than gloves a size too small, the sounds are never boring or cliched, and his choices for vocalists are genius. After making a record as near perfect and constantly surprising as their debut, it would have been easy to make Pop or Not Part II and call it good. Thomas did much more than that; keeping the parts that worked, and adding many welcome left turns and new surprises while giving the songs a deeper lyrical impact -- something that was sometimes missing from the debut. The effort and craft that went into making the record, and the emotions they tapped into along the way, make Empty Words an impressive improvement on the brilliant Pop or Not.

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