Dragonette chase pop perfection on Royal Blues

Dragonette - Royal Blues“Are we cool?” she asks as the title track cascades to a close, and it’s not yet clear who’s doing the asking: is the song’s protagonist checking in with her new lover, or is Martina Solbara questioning Dragonette’s status in 2016? Like fellow Canadians Tegan & Sara, they’ve carved out a niche in modern electro pop by setting tales of romantic uncertainty to dizzying synth hooks, a style that manages to be retro (“Lonely Heart” and its cod reggae, Ace of Base feel) while also unmistakably modern (“Body 2 Body” and its “Sorry” tropical house keyboard presets). By the end of Royal Blues, their fourth album, it’s not entirely clear what kind of cool the band are chasing.

Certainly if those Lego Movie dollars start getting waved about again, there’s more than enough here to suggest they’d be ready. Opener “Let The Night Fall” could feasibly be advertising a P&O cruise, but I absolutely refuse to believe that the gimmicky chanting and sledgehammer cowbell on “High Five” is not already soundtracking the end credits of a new, as yet unnamed Hannah Montana movie. And why not? The Toronto trio have become admirably adept at crafting catchy, hook-laden pop songs that lean on just the right side of sexy. That’s an awesome gift.

Like most albums built on adrenaline-rush pop thrills, though, Royal Blues experiences its share of blood sugar dips. Solbara is generally a fine lyricist, with moments of inspiration (“We slam into each other like an accident”) running alongside a few clangers (“Do it like I don’t give a damn, like a tyrannical man, like Darth Vader”), but the music frequently suffers from stretches of generic, EDM-tinged filler that lose most or all of the band’s identity in the mix. It’s a shame, because when they nail it, as on “Royal Blues” and “Sweet Poison”, they sound absolutely invincible.

At the very end, “Future Ghost” shows off a darker side, almost reaching the weird intensity of a Nite Jewel or Zola Jesus number. And therein lies the real question: do Dragonette want to be a cool niche act, or a cool pop group? The answer seems to be the latter, and I salute them. It’s hard work, and maybe the hardest job is to keep things interesting over the course of an LP. “Even when I’m missing the mark, I keep on hitting it,” they sing. To which the natural inclination is to respond: isn’t it perhaps time to recalibrate?

Release: November 11th 2016, Dragonette Inc.

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