Heart Swell

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After a five-year break between albums that involved lineup changes and half the band moving from Ireland to Toronto and back again, the Irish quartet Dott returned with a second album that mostly follows the girl group/noise pop template they laid out on their charming debut album, Swoon. Like Swoon, the band's focus on Heart Swell is on the powerful, heartbreakingly clear vocals of Anna McCarthy. She could sing just about anything and make it sound like an urgent message from the angels, and when the songs are a match -- like they often were on the debut -- the music lifts off and takes flight. There are plenty of moments on Heart Swell that do exactly that. There are songs that have bright-as-a-new-light-bulb melodies ("Not Sorry"), gently swaying ballads that are as warm as a lingering cuddle ("18"), sweet summer pop songs with handclaps and swooning vocal harmonies ("Swim"), and at least one song that comes across like a lost chart-topping single from 1993 (the mighty "Bleached Blonde"). These moments would have all fit nicely on Swoon and been highlights. Unfortunately, while 90 percent of the album is a fine follow-up, when they expand the formula a little bit, things get a little dicey. The singsongy "Like a Girl" sounds like it would fit on the soundtrack of a cheesy Josie & the Pussycats knockoff movie; there are overly beefy songs, like "Floating Arrow" and "Do Ya," that conjure up memories of bands like Eve's Plum that were regulars in the cut-out bins of the early '90s; and one of the ballads, "Wedding Song," gets a little too close to cloying middle-of-the-road territory. Subtract those few missteps and what's left is fizzing guitar pop with just the right balance of snappy melody and biting guitar, with a brilliant voice driving the melodies home like a trusted cabbie. Sadly, they are stuck in the track list like ugly blue splotches on a freshly painted wall, hard to overlook and coming perilously close to ruining the whole thing. Easy enough to skip, though, because the rest of the album is a keeper.

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