There is a distance in all of us and between all of us, one that can only be bridged with true belief in another human being. Trust is something that can only develop where pain and hardships have been, and it’s something that, when created, is more powerful than any ocean and continent keeping you apart. This is the thesis of Untogether, the stunning debut album and second release from Montreal’s Blue Hawaii. Consisting of BRAIDS singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston and electronic artist Alex “Agor” Cowan, the duo grew form with 2010′s tropically-tinged Blooming Summer EP, but then real life intervened, as Standell-Preston was on the road for the better part of 2 years as part of her main band.
Untogether as an album title speaks then not just to the themes but also the process, the journey of creating a coherent piece of music while away from your partner. What this lends the album is a sense of urgency that perhaps evaded the previous release; you get the sense that the band is recording this not just for the sake of trying things out but because it works as therapy against the tyranny of distance. The music lends itself to this by exploring the cold tones of electronic music and how they can meld with the warmth of indie pop at its most acute definition. Where their first album explored the aftermath of a trip to Belize, this one is darker in a much more personal way; it is the brooding winter after the band’s blooming summer.
The change is evident early on, as the standout track “Try to Be” loops an acoustic guitar in a way that seems…off. It’s just enough of an uncomfortable loop so as to back up what might be the most intriguing vocal performance in Standell-Preston’s short and stellar career. Full of grace and confessional strength, she runs through the failures of her own being, but it’s not defeatist; she’s bridging that gap willingly, and damn if it doesn’t sound good. Where as her work on Blooming Summer lent itself a more out-there emotive feel, and her vocals on BRAIDS are a lot more bombastic and feral, here she seems to have grasped a different emotion: growth. That growth lends Untogether its flair, as Standell-Preston matches her voice with the ethereal beats created by Cowan, sounding something like the favorite older sibling of Grimes (without the annoying baby-voice inflections) and Purity Ring’s Megan James.
Cowan’s instrumentation keeps up mostly by taking Burial-like understated dubstep patterns and weaving them in and out of indietronica bathed in passion. It’s a hell of a mix, especially on songs like “In Two” and “In Two II” (the latter being quite an obnoxious name), where he allows himself time to layer on more and more affectations before dropping it all out on the second track in order for percussion and synth blasts to shine through. It’s a dark alley of an album, only the figures in the shadows are there to push you forward. It’s challenging to mix what is essentially an experimental album (the band spoke about how they were beginning to throw new influences into their style, just to see how the things that intrigued them fit into their own style) with a passionate treatise on the sheer force of distance. The technological aspect connects their two approaches, creating an album that feels both cool and embracing at the same time.
One thing that Blue Hawaii did pick up in their travels is an affinity for dance music, and it shows up on certain tracks that would not be out of place as the soundtrack for a bleary-eyed loft party. “Flammarion” will be a live show favorite, as it gets you moving whether you’re surrounded by people or alone. Standell-Preston’s vocals get looped into an instrument on the track, working up a sweat and an irregular heart beat, while Cowan hits the switch on several jittery synths and drum machines. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if there’s a love song here, readymade for a slow dance with the world melting away around, it’s “Yours to Keep.” Whispers and proclamations of love float through a gentle snowfall here, the yearning for connection so evident in Standell-Preston’s voice. She’s never sounded so pleading, so vulnerable, as when she sings “Love me, love me, please don’t, please don’t give up.” It’s an earned pain, one that multiple oceans and the vastness of this earth cannot contain. It’s a pain that Blue Hawaii has made a masterpiece of subtlety; not one note is wasted in the pursuit of closing the distances that work so hard to obstruct love.