Australia is known for being fiercely loyal to its homegrown musical talents, and cautious optimism is sometimes required when a new act comes along who might be able to cross the equatorial line and do the nation proud on a global scale. On paper, that’s exactly what The Jezabels are tipped to do with their radio-friendly pop beats, wailing guitars and sultry, earnest frontwoman in Hayley Mary (real name Hayley McGlone) – all the ingredients required for a stylishly sweetened injection of angst. Having first made a name for themselves with the shrill, forlorn indie-pop of 2009′s ‘Disco Biscuit Love’, the band duly celebrated minor radio success further afield. However, the extended period in which it took to see their debut album reach fruition appears to have forged a maudlin sense of pessimism in The Jezabels, and on Prisoner they sadly fall short of the hype. Cursed with a dreary sincerity and a desire to communicate their self-coined ‘intensindie’ style, they rarely sound as though they’re having any fun, which would be more endurable were it not for the sense of having heard a lot of what the album has to offer before.
Beginning with the title track’s huge, dramatic synthesised organ tones that give way to some lofty electric guitar from Samuel Lockwood, the initial impression is one of a not displeasingly gloomy grandeur. This is instantly dispelled, however, by Nik Kaloper’s wayward, clattering drumming, which feels totally misplaced and does little to complement McGlone’s drab, echoic vocals. Something of an anomaly, the song suffers from the very intensity that the band are so keen to court. ‘Endless Summer’, on the other hand, is an undeniably delicious taste of sun-kissed pop hooks, recalling ill-advised trysts and melted popsicles. Kaloper and Lockwood get things started with screeching guitar and aggressive drums recalling early Sonic Youth, before McGlone’s emotional vocals seize control of the ensemble with a chilling, excitable sorcery. Here, and through much of the rest of album, spectral allusions to Yeah Yeah Yeahs loom without quite being matched in quality (though another highlight, ‘Trycolour’, comes close).
Following the mid-album peak of ‘City Girl’, which is almost Zola Jesus-like in its soaring, detailed fervour, and the thundering ‘Nobody Nowhere’, the second half of Prisoner unravels into a troubled affair, bloated with poor choices and repeated ideas. Following the distractingly screechy, directionless ’Horsehead’ comes the instrumental quagmire of ‘Austerlitz’; mixing muddy bass with an icy piano that meanders without building any emotional intensity, the song ekes out its three minutes with little progression. ‘Peace Of Mind’ pleasantly foregrounds McGlone’s smoky vocals, but there’s a distinct lack of imagination to the arrangement (although some Spanish-tinged, delay-heavy guitar does lend a little melodrama), while the lame instrumental ‘Reprise’ is a point of contention. An utterly pointless addition, it cripples the pace of an already languorous finale.
All this would have provided a particularly disappointing denouement were it not for the wistful tragi-rock of closing track ‘Catch Me’. A summer storm of a song, drawing deep on ’80s darkwave and ’90s trance, its brooding synth layers stand toe-to-toe with euphoric piano and dreamy, reverb-laden drums, with McGlone’s vocals back to their smooth, simmering best. It’s just enough to remind that The Jezabels are capable of some pleasantly slick pop, even if there are only enough bright ideas here to fill half the album’s runtime. Hampered by an insistence on taking themselves so seriously and set adrift in a sea of conflicting and repetitive ideas, Prisoner isn’t exactly a life sentence but it is rarely captivating either.
[Self-released; UK release TBC]