Chad Valley’s two tropical, luminous EPs surfaced in 2010 and 2011, just when the American appreciation of a false craze, chillwave, was transmogrifying into a wholly earnest recapitulation of breathy, plaintive, synth-clouded pop music. The EPs featured a heavy rotation of woozily processed keyboard chords and strung-out beats. Hugo Manuel, the Oxonian behind the Chad Valley pseudonym, sang largely in a filtered, nasally croon—his smoothed-out, barely lyrical, synthetically harmonied vocals enlisted themselves more as a mere part of the whole neon-rainbow of his compositions than an explicit narration. It’s one of the most hypnotic techniques of those EPs. It was evocative without excess—perhaps the most difficult and most successful attribute of pop music when it’s a work of true genius.
The Chad Valley debut full-length, however, departs significantly from this accomplishment. Pursuing more the path of pop frontman, there’s hardly a single selection on Young Hunger that doesn’t feature Manuel’s distinctive plea front and center. The hand-drum disco beats are in full effect. The basslines purr with subliminal power. But the vocals are piercing, overbearing, almost didactic. This shortcoming isn’t helped by the fact that seven of the album’s eleven tracks feature guest vocalists. And they’re lovely guest vocalists, at that: George Lewis, Jr. of Twin Shadow, Sarah Assbring of El Perro del Mar, Cameron Mesirow of Glasser, et al. These are arresting, distinctive voices duetting with Manuel’s. They were clearly chosen with an intention, and that intention seems to verge somewhere along the lines of a fully collaborative album.
“Fall 4 U,” the track that includes Mesirow’s porcelain soprano, succeeds largely because it’s written as a full-fledged call-and-response duet—like Elton John and Kiki Dee over undulating Balearic pop. But it’s one of the only times where the singing healthily complements the song. For the most part, the vocals totally overpower the trademark Valley-ian sonic experience. “Up & Down” and the title track—rare solo efforts here—despite the omnipresent bellows, heavily incorporate chattering percussion breakdowns and a minimalist harmony palette. Sequentially back to back in the last leg of the album, these two songs work as a necessary refresher amid the borderline-novelty pop saccharine.
Still, Young Hunger is a solidly crafted album that manages to give hints at what Chad Valley does best while musically supporting a bunch of his buddies. The track “Fathering / Mothering,” which features Anne Lise Frøkedal of Harrys Gym, and not Manuel at all, surprises with its forthright pop charm. The xylophones, distant organs, and twinkling steel-drum effects produce a masterful page from Manuel’s portfolio. It almost makes one wish he’d just written a dozen brilliant songs and lent them to his favorite talent, Dan the Automator–style, for a more cohesive vision.