Audio Mixer: Peter Mayes.
Recording information: Henson Studios, Los Angeles (2015/2016); Island Sound, Hawaii (2015/2016); Studio 161, Los Angeles (2015/2016); Woody Jackson Studios, Los Angeles (2015/2016).
By the time many bands get to their third album, they decide it's time to change the formula that got them that far, adding or subtracting this or that until they basically ruin everything. Empire of the Sun don't do anything like that on their third album, Two Vines. Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore seem content to ride their shiny, helium-filled pop balloon until it floats straight into the sun, exploding in ribbons of sparkling melodies, gleaming synths, percolating beats, and man-machine vocals. Almost nothing has changed since the brilliant 2013 album Ice on the Dune -- maybe it's a little warmer and less disco-fied, but it's just as expansive and unabashedly welcoming. The duo concoct music that sounds like a giant hug, sweet and smooth with a powerfully beating heart. They layer banks of keys, electric pianos, vibraphones, chiming guitars, and miles of vocal harmonies like painters, then place Steele's soaring vocals on top like a whimsical, mystical cherry. It's a formula that needs no alterations to sound like the best pop music imaginable in the 2010s. This time out, the songs are a little more balanced. While every song sounds like it could be a hit single, there are no songs that stand out as much as "Walking on a Dream" or "Alive." The record flows like a technicolor river from one sophisticated pop gem to the next, pausing only for the occasional moment that peeks its head above the current and quietly demands some extra attention. The slippery smooth '80s ballad "First Crush" is one of those times, as the duo strip back the arrangement just a little to give the song extra room to breathe. "To Her Door" is another. It features Lindsey Buckingham's gently picked guitar and iconic backing vocals, giving the song some real soft rock legitimacy and ending the album on a high note. Two Vines may not be the group's masterpiece, but it is their most consistent album yet. Their mastery of modern pop sounds, ability to craft melodies that have a timeless quality, and the real connection they provide to people who want their frivolous pop music to have some depth and meaning, is impressive. So many bands who try this sound chilly and calculating, but on Two Vines, Empire of the Sun sound the way sunshine feels, warm and enveloping. Hopefully that will never change no matter how many albums they make. ~ Tim Sendra