Gary Raymond reviews the second album from electro-duo Astro Tough by Audiobooks, which brings out many of the best elements of their debut and builds on them.
It’s still a fruitless endeavour trying to categorise the debut album from Audiobooks, 2019’s Now! (in a minute). Even after a few years of having it close to hand, having it as one of those records you can fall back on when you’re in a hurry, it defies simple tagging. It’s an electro record, sure; it has its heart firmly back in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and its feet right there in one of those seedy Berlin dance clubs. But it also packs enough sharp turns and surprises that means it might not fit so easily into those spaces either. One of the reasons is that one half of Audiobooks (not the easiest band to Google), super producer David Wrench, seems tingling with ideas – maybe too many ideas; Now! (in a minute) is a big but fidgety record – it’s great, but, y’know, quite exhausting following it around the room. The other reason is that the vocalist for Audiobooks, Evangeline Ling, is a mercurial presence, sometimes lingering like a voice in the back of your head. Other times she’s up there like a beat poet, albeit one ever so slightly unsure of herself. It makes for a charming, alluring set of performances, but is maybe too timid for floor fillers.
That might all sound a little unkind – Now! (in a minute) is a great record, one that gives anybody looking for fresh ideas plenty to get stuck into. But I’m harsh on it now because Audiobooks’ second album, Astro Tough, is so great, it shows up the shortfalls of the debut very starkly indeed. Even if I wasn’t really sure where or why or if Now! (in a minute) had plenty of shortcomings, I am now certain of its place as the awkward fumbling foreplay to the earth-shaking YES YES YES of Astro Tough.
And it’s not just the interplay between listener and band that is now more confident and self-assured, but it seems the duo of Wrench and Ling have also stopped fucking about. Gone are the showy U-turns of some of the most eye-brow-arching moment of Now! (in a minute), replaced by a streamlined maturity, an unwavering knowledge that everything here has a part to play in a bigger picture, a bigger sensual experience. “A Doll” opens proceedings with a drive that only occasionally raised its head on the debut, and that focus doesn’t really let up. There are such life-affirming swells on tracks like “Trouble in Business Class” and “He Called Me Bambi” that you cannot help but think that this album sits most comfortably with towering achievements like Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure (1973) and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless (1991). What Wrench has done is make every second count toward the forward motion of the song; we all love a bit of frivolous indulgence, but when you get the other thing, that intensity of vision, it’s a different game.
But the most important progression from the first album is the realisation that Ling is not another instrument but rather is the focal point of the band. Now, with renewed vigour in both her delivery and her writing, she is the frontwoman, the performer, the thing to which the eye – and ear – is drawn. Her lyrics now have accentuated the cutting wit and self-deprecation of before. She is part Ari Up, part Claire-Louise Bennett. This is the most literary of singer-types. You want to spend time with her in the same way you want to spend time with the honesty and openness of Bennett, or Rebecca Watson, or even a Lydia Davis or Amy Hempel. Mix that with a healthy dose of a Patti Smith-vibe channelled through the vocal experimentation of Life Without Buildings singer Sue Tompkins and a bit of the dryness of Black Box Recorder’s Sarah Nixey, and you have an exhilarating centrepiece for Wrench’s gutsy arrangements.
But don’t get the idea this is all drive and ambition and sorry spoken-word monologues about millennials crying into their cornflakes. Ling is a better storyteller than that, and Wrench has sequenced an album of great texture. “The Doll” is a scene-setter, and key into the ignition. “Lalala It’s the Good Life” is a hit single on another, better planet. “The English Manipulator” is a visceral rampage through the sounds of bands like the Bush Tetras or Delta 5. But then we sink to what sounds like Beth Gibbons singing something off Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs (1970) with the caged animal that is “He Called Me Bambi”. Honestly, I could go through the whole album like this, trying to unpick each track, but it would be quicker to tell you to go and listen to it; get it, get comfy, get it on.
I should just keep it simple.
Astro Tough is one of those rare albums: a great one.
Astro Tough by Audiobooks is available now on Heavenly Records.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, broadcaster, and Editor of Wales Arts Review.