Four years on from their last (and only) full-length release, Montrealers Blue Hawaii are back with new record Tenderness, which finds Arbutus darling Raphaelle Standell-Preston (see also: Braids) and Alexander Kerby adding some spring to their sonic step.
Tenderness both is and isn't a new sound for the duo: the harder, often cyclical beats, particularly present in the eminently danceable opening tracks, are newer, heavier territory; ditto for the various '90s influences that crop up throughout. Yet Standell's vocals, often verging on dissonance (a neat juxtaposition with the much more consonant beats), alongside the at-times almost story-like vignettes in the lyrics (from the opening "I missed the bus" to the inclusion of a voicemail from Standell's aunt), give a discernible link back to the Blue Hawaii of yore. In short, it's the sweet spot of sonic progression while still feeling unmistakably Blue Hawaii-esque.
The album jumps out of the gate with a trio of tracks all evoking a '90s Euro-disco aesthetic, setting a clear tone; "Free at Last" and "No One Like You" are both bouncy, with cyclical beats given some shimmer with other sounds layered in — most notably some disco strings in the latter. It's mostly simple (maybe a little too much so on "Free at Last," which could be seen as a little repetitious depending on one's attention span), but it works. And it's mercifully not a feeble attempt to just nostalgically rehash a dead sound — the eccentric qualities of Standell's voicing in cuts like "Versus Game" helps veer Tenderness away from sheer pastiche.
"Do You Need Me," a standout ballad and uniquely subdued track here showcases Standell's vocals, not to mention her emotional range — something that Tenderness could afford to do more elsewhere, instead of dipping into the slightly-too-nonchalant speech-singing elsewhere in the album.
As yet, though there are moments where the throwback homages go a little far — "Belong to Myself" features almost rapped vocals, and the swagger on display is a little like a funny hat at a party (a novelty, but kind of cheesy) — it's an exception. The upbeat Euro-tone with a dark edge that characterizes Tenderness is tidily executed, evocative and catchy to boot. (Arbutus)