Review by Michael O'Neill
The Joy Formidable is one of those bands whose name describes their music perfectly; their songs are usually uplifting, but also powerful. Big drums, bigger guitars, and lofty ambitions often project their music to incredible heights, best demonstrated on their earth-shaking, sky-scraping early-period single “Whirring.” At the same time, singer/guitarist Ritzy Bryan possesses a knack for clever songwriting and an irresistible charm (undoubtedly aided by her playful Welsh accent) that gives most of their songs a positive mood. They write explosive soundscapes and lay delightful melodies on top of them, transitioning from a perky chorus to a full-on guitar freakout with the switch of a distortion pedal. The trio have seemed destined for arena tours and festival headlining slots since their 2011 breakout The Big Roar, and their latest output, titled Hitch, attempts to hone in on that sound. In doing so, however, The Joy Formidable has sacrificed some of what has made them great, and we’re left with a somewhat diminished final product.
Musically, Hitch is not much of a departure from what we heard on The Joy Formidable’s two previous LPs. Bryan’s furious strumming and Thomas’ taste for crash cymbals return, and the group’s traditional big verse/huge chorus format is still intact. Most of the songs themselves aren’t bad, either. “A Second in White” fills the typical role of adrenaline-pumping opener, starting with a driving riff before oscillating between slow, anthemic choruses and whirlwind verses. Pre-release singles “Last Thing On My Mind” and “Liana” both build nicely, the former wrapping itself around a memorable bass-and-guitar riff and the latter putting a piano to good use. “Radio of Lips” is a burst of energy, even if it does sound a bit too similar to Wolf’s Law track “This Ladder Is Ours.” And in the tradition of epic album closers, “Don’t Let Me Know” starts as a slow acoustic ballad and later cascades from a surging keyboard riff into a triumphant rush of toms and a wall of guitars.
But while all the classic Joy Formidable elements are present on Hitch, they’re utilized and put together in such a way that they lose some of the impact they held on The Big Roar and Wolf’s Law. In particular, Hitch sounds a little more constrained and serious than the band’s previous work. Bryan’s vocals in particular have less bounce and levity to them before; never on Hitch does she sound like she does on, say, “Cradle.” The only real moment of light-heartedness on the album comes in the studio-chatter intro to “Last Thing On My Mind.” Perhaps it has to do with the subject material: many of the songs here seem to be dealing with a bitter breakup, as the lead single’s lyrics suggest: “Even when I’m out of time / You’re the last thing on my mind.”
Part of what holds Hitch back is its production. Overall, the record sounds muddier and more cluttered than previous albums; where The Big Roar and Wolf’s Law soared, Hitch falls flat. Though the instrumentation may be just as dynamic as before, the mixing blends them together into a grimey solution where each part simply drowns out the others. Their was a delicacy behind the chaos of the group’s first two records (with The Big Roar in particular striking this balance well), and Hitch loses that quality. Grandiosity used to come naturally to The Joy Formidable, and now it feels forced and less enveloping as a result.
Moreover, Hitch doesn’t contain any instant classic songs, and does hit a lull about halfway through the tracklist. Beyond “Whirring,” the band’s undisputed magnum opus, The Big Roar also claimed fantastic songs like the torrential “The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie” and the lightning-in-a-bottle “Austere.” Wolf’s Law featured “Maw Maw Song,” notable for its two-minute guitar solo if nothing else, and “Little Blimp,” a charged-up rocker packed tightly into three minutes. Hitch lacks any jaw-dropping moment, no single song to stand above the rest as particularly memorable or one you’ll be craving to jump back to for months to come. Lead single “Last Thing On My Mind” is the closest they have here to an earworm, but falls short of demanding repeated listens. It’s a constant run of good-not-great, and for a band that’s achieved excellence so often in the past, it’s more than a little disappointing. The album loses what momentum it had right in the middle, starting with the dull and too-long “The Brook” and continuing through “The Gift,” which features bassist Dafydd on vocals. “Underneath the Petal” is a fine acoustic break from the onslaught, but does less in six minutes what Wolf’s Law acoustic number “Silent Treatment” managed in three-and-a-half.
Overall, Hitch is an album that undeniably sounds like The Joy Formidable, but lacks that special touch that takes their music from decent to superb. Everything tangible from the first two records is still there, but it’s the intangibles - wonder, excitement, fun - that seem to be missing. The record is still a thoroughly enjoyable listen, but it’s hard to appreciate it for what it is when you know what this group is capable of. It’s a shame because the ingredients are there for The Joy Formidable to become a top-tier rock band, and frankly they deserved to become one after putting out The Big Roar. Five years later, Hitch won’t be getting them any closer to the superstardom they once seemed poised to attain.