London Grammar – If You Wait

by Jack Reid

London Grammar have been on our radar for a while now. We made our recommendation to look out for these guys earlier this year, and we stand by it. Having come a long way from performing in little bars in Nottingham, the band are now elbowing their way into the UK Top 40. Having met at university, London Grammar are very obviously very student-y. Hannah Reid especially wouldn’t look out of place at an Exeter University Varsity game, or bantering in a Timepiece queue.

Maturity Something that slapped me in the face about this album is how fully formed the band seem to be. There is an impeccable ‘finished-ness’ to London Grammar’s sound. It’s truly miraculous. Take into account, for example, that the opening track of the debut album, which seems so perfect and atmospheric as an opener, is the first track that the band ever released to the world. Imagine if Radiohead skipped Pablo Honey, threw out Street Spirit (Fade Out) to gauge the response to their sound, and then followed up with OK Computer the next year. I’m not calling London Grammar the next Radiohead, but that’s the kind of maturity we’re talking about.

Hannah’s voice shows no signs of derivation. Sure, she’s taking hints from balladeers like Lana del Ray (she’s a self-professed fan), and Florence Welch. I don’t want to focus too much on modern comparison though, because there’s certainly something about her performance that is not of this time. I hear serious streaks of 90s and turn-of-the-millenium singers in London Grammar. Something in the melancholy, jaded tones evokes Dido to me. Something in the fog that sometimes rolls over the production, coupled with Reid’s delivery strikes chords of Crowded House.

The maturity doesn’t start and end with Hannah Reid however. Dot Major, the multi-instrumentalist at the heart of the band’s production has managed to craft a consistent, intriguing sound that, despite being mostly invariable, is fascinating enough to sustain attention for a long play. With a beautifully minimal toolkit of voice, piano, guitar, strings and beats, London Grammar craft an incredible range of textures. This kind of mastery of one’s tools to many ends is a true sign of musical maturity.

Minimalism Stay Awake is a perfect case study for London Grammar’s beautifully minimalist production and songwriting. The simplicity of powering the track forward with a crisp breakbeat that varies little from bar to bar is a fantastic choice to accompany the short verses. Unlike many acts who ply their sound with the electronic, London Grammar refuse to draw their songs out longer than they need be. The simple refrain of “Stay awake with me”, is used only as much as it is needed to be, climbing in intensity across the track. With a voice as dynamic as Hannah’s, all that’s needed to mark the chorus instrumentally are some soft strings and a shift in the intensity of piano and guitar playing. The whole journey is finished under the three minute mark.

The band seem to strip their songs down when they really want to punch you in the feelings. Take Interlude - predominantly a piano ballad, with a beautiful lyricism and sense of great space evoking intense loneliness.

I will dream of you, You’ll dream of me too, Your arms go around my waist, There would be no better place.

The song is slow, sorrowful and empty for most of it’s length, but builds enough for the most emotive drum break (is that a thing?) I’ve heard for years, to punch underneath a gorgeous vocal crescendo. Then, the piano chords resolve and we’re done. Over. No fluff. No fade out, no outro.

Fullness I want to highlight the exceptions to the rule. Two tracks on the album defy the brutal minimalism that London Grammar apply to their arrangements, yet it works. The penultimate track, Flickers, adds new elements so late on in the album that they are a true surprise. The guitar riff seems to rock back and forth with the djembe, and the effects on Hannah’s voice are a little further forward in the mix. We are still talking about a very minimal track, but by the standard set by the album so far, the sound is positively tropical. The true shock of the song comes late on. In the anacrusis of the breakdown, the first note of the backing vocal is heard. Having only heard layers of Hannah’s voice up until now, the change is stark. The refrain, “the flickers, the flickers in my head” is driving, along with sharp upstrummed guitar. The song sounds slightly aggressive, spooky.

Finally, the last track of the album: the eponymous, If You Wait. The track is deeply heartfelt, often building to raw crescendos from Reid. That eponymous refrain still rattles around my head now, along with those rare ad-libs from the vocalist. Again, the surprising moreness comes late in the track. After the drums, the piano, and the vocal die away, we are given a string section that plays a kind of coda: a summation of all that we’ve just heard in lush smoothness. It’s wonderful.

Mentions A great addition to this album is a cover of Kavinsky’s Nightcall. Originally a french-touch electro tune, deeply rooted in a dark, retro sound, the track is wonderfully transformed. I never found myself wanting this cover before I knew of its existence, but I am so thankful for its inclusion here. There is a delicacy that the group add to the song. This is clearest just before the three minute mark when the piano melody comes back in an octave higher. The space around this tiny riff seems astronomical and terrifying, just before the power lands back in the track and builds to a more satisfying crescendo than even Kavinsky achieved.

Being the first single from the band, Metal & Dust was by no means new to me. However it really benefits from the context of the album. The tune is more overtly electronic than the others, and gives away some of the band’s influences. Those breakbeats, that at times are filtered right down to the kicks are simply straight from drum ‘n’ bass, and it’s incredible to hear them so well recontextualised here. The end of the track features the same technique of vocal sampling as CHRVCHES use in their track The Mother We Share, albeit with a muffling that blends beautifully.

Verdict This album is a gorgeous debut, and a perfect statement of exactly what London Grammar can do. Their superb self-control, songwriting ability, lyricism and emotional intelligence are all signs that this new band are already somehow miraculously mature. Their sound and everything around it seems like the tuned perfection of a group that have been honing their skills for decades - not the first efforts from a bunch of Nottingham students.