The situation has steadily improved for Olly Knights and Gale Paridjanian over their short careers. The British duo nabbed themselves a Mercury Prize nomination in 2001 for their debut, The Optimist LP, successfully avoided the sophomore slump with 2003’s Ether Song, and were even able to write off their world travels on their taxes as “business expenses.” Things are all right in Turin Brakes land. And those good vibes slather their sparkling jubilation all across JackInABox, making it a superb soundtrack for a summer barbecue this is background music you’ll have no qualms about talking over.
Where Ether Song saw the Brakes using the studio to coolly and deliberately expand on the acoustic simplicity of their debut, the busy compositions on JackInABox border on studio abuse. “Asleep With the Fireflies” could have been enjoyable if they hadn’t assaulted the chorus with meowing keyboards from 1978. Dense instrumentation or use of a full band isn’t a crime in itself, but the apparent reliance on those devices strips the character from these tunes.
So it’s not a shock to find that “Road to Nowhere,” the album’s clear highlight, bears a keen resemblance to the material from Optimist. Lilting harmonies and Paridjanian’s emotive slide guitar delicately filled that record’s 3/4 time signatures, and even when they got peppy on Ether Song (“Pain Killer” instantly comes to mind), they found a way to distinguish their songs from one another (in this case, a broken riff with a little palm mute) — and more important, everyone else’s. But here, we’re left with some modern lite-rock that echoes most similar fare on your local “alternative” radio station.
Turin Brakes’ expansive and more daring previous work held an encouraging arc that promised risks and excitement, but JackInABox, while a pleasant listen, fails to cash in on that potential, and is unfortunately a step back for the talented duo. Maybe this is just a breather for them, a rest stop where they sit back, crank out a few inoffensive tunes, and gear up for the next challenge. In fact, that almost has to be the case, because they’re certainly capable of much more than this.