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When I first heard the new version of Vondelpark’s California Analog Dream – the version that’s included in the tracklist of their sublime debut album, ‘Seabed’ – I didn’t like it that much. I didn’t have any kind of qualm with the more vibrant acoustic sound or the more confident vocal on display, all of which is pretty inoffensive; instead, it was a kind of gut reaction at the shock of something you think is perfect being overwritten – the same kind of queasiness most people express when they see their favourite books being adapted into movies. Ever since I first heard California Analog Dream – sometime in 2010 back when no one could pinpoint whether Vondelpark was one person or three – I’ve been waiting for his/their debut album to land. But I was never expecting it to arrive with a total re-interpretation of the music that got me interested in the first place, and seeing it pan out that way left me feeling kind of adrift. This wasn’t necessarily the album I’d been imagining or waiting for; it was something new to get to know entirely.
In keeping with Vondelpark’s own ability to adapt, though, over the few weeks that I’ve had ‘Seabed’ in my possession, I’ve adjusted my vision and started seeing this band differently. The Surrey-based trio aren’t working in pen and paper anymore – they’ve graduated to 3D cinema, and it’s a whole new medium to get used to. When you think of it that way, the upheaval of California Analog Dream makes total sense; rather than trying to quietly sidestep an internet presence that had been bubbling underneath them for a good three years, the group have acknowledged their evolution face-on by revisiting their sepia-tinted past and jolting it into colour. Because Vondelpark have really changed. While once you might have said they made dance music (though it only ever sounded like an awkward, twitchy kind of dancing), they’ve sunk to somewhere far heavier in your limbs now, sandbagged and swaying. Their acoustic instruments call out louder, the vocal is clearer, and they’ve left introspective dance music behind to make music that doesn’t try to make a social situation out of emotional expression – this is music primarily just for being alone.
Vondelpark – California Analog Dream
The consistent Vondelpark characteristic that’s carried over from their earliest beats to their latest sways and surges is an impressionistic take on songwriting. Right from the gushing dam-break that is Lewis Rainsbury’s vocal bringing the album opener Quest to life, his layered vocals are crucial in determining the vibe of each track, and though the words are often submerged, their presence adds strokes of colour that make the album the emotional ride it is. In particular, the refrains of Always Forever – one I always half-mishear about “just drifting when I’m hanging with you” and the lovely “I’m just saying that I’m having a time,/You’re just saying that you’re having the time of your life” – actually sound like the circular pointlessness and listlessness of the rambling conversations and platitudes of people who are infatuated with each other. Maybe that seems like a stretch, but even so, the listless texture added to the track by Rainsbury cooing “darlin’, darlin’” makes Always Forever, in its very essence, one of the best love songs I’ve heard this year.
Vondelpark – Dracula
Admittedly, though the heady rush of Always Forever bleeding into the now-exuberant sound of California Analog Dream represents the peak of the LP, ‘Seabed’ has its moments of being just a bit too watered-down and introspective. Three quarters of the way through, Closer and Seabed drift along through vocal mazes that are playfully close to being catchy – “I won’t say it/If you won’t say it/We’re going in circles/But that’s the way we play it” – but the sheer amount of time they take to wander to their conclusion is the kind of thing you have to be in the mood for. That being said, things take a turn for the sharper and weirder in the form of the beautiful Outro 4 Ariel, the crumpled-up structure of which closes the album by leaving the distinct impression that the group are still keen to innovate and take you by surprise.
Vondelpark – Always Forever
Beginning with what sounds like a piano being (eerily) played in another room and accompanied by an as-yet-unheard female vocal, Outro adopts a vaguely hip hop-ish beat before suddenly having an orchestral moment of quiet reverence and then deciding to end the record with a hand-clapping singalong. None of these musical events are things you’d expect to hear on a Vondelpark record, particularly not gelling together as smoothly as they do on this track, but the group’s light touch holds it all delicately, beautifully together. On a smaller scale, the thickly gloomy refrain of “I’m on the seabed, might as well just be dead” also illustrates this band’s penchant for paradoxes; the classic happy-tune-sad-lyrics pop trope acts as the album’s full stop, leaving you flooded with the impracticality of feelings.
Being a very human, very impressionistic record not so much designed for dancing, ‘Seabed’ should really be heard on headphones. It’s intensely isolated listening, feeding your daydreams with unspecific lyrics and bleaching out your surroundings until they’re beautifully blue, no matter where you happen to be. It’s been listening to it this way that I’ve become totally engulfed in it, and come to love Vondelpark’s bold new sound in a way entirely separate from their twilight roots; not clicking and searching for what used to be, only evolving and moving with what’s here.