With the shoal of boy-girl indie pop duos swarming in the wake of the White Stripes over the last 10 years, quality has predictably varied from the sublime (Summer Camp) to the shocking (The Ting Tings – may we never forget our folly).London-based Big Deal, made up of Alice Costelloe and Kacey Underwood, carved out their own space in that niche field with 2011 debut Lights Out, a low-tech set of lovelorn melodies and grunge riffs that were refreshingly rough around the edges.
The lack of drums lent its tracks an appealing amateurishness, as if the listener were hearing them for the first time through the walls of the upstairs bedroom. The album’s atmosphere was lifted by singer Costelloe’s swooning lyrics and grunge-Lolita persona – equal parts naïve ingénue and precocious seductress, delivered in a sultry series of heartsick croons and sighs.
The relative speed with which Costelloe and Underwood have produced their follow-up, June Gloom, suggests there’s been no real effort to polish up the scuzziness that formed the core of Lights Out’s pleasure centre. And that turns out to be the case; June Gloom’s riffs thrum and thrash with that familiar home-made aesthetic that recalls vintage Nirvana and Dinosaur Jr.
Big Deal’s big change this time around is the addition of drums and bass – and they enter the fray in a big way. Opener ‘Golden Light’ begins with a delicate interplay of vocals and guitar washes that could have been ripped straight out of Lights Out, but this is quickly revealed as something of a playful fake-out when a full rhythm section comes clattering into play a couple of minutes in. From then on, rowdy percussion is pretty much the order of the day, as thunderously expressed on rose-tinted slacker anthem ‘Dream Machine’ and the riotous stomp of ‘Teradactol’.
Costelloe and Underwood might have clamped some steel on to their sound, but the vibe of all-consuming romantic nostalgia, led by Costelloe’s butter-wouldn’t-melt vocals, remains undisturbed. The duo confidently reaffirm their sensitive touch when exploring the kind of sweaty-palmed yearning that never really goes out of fashion. ‘In Your Car’ crashes around with abandon, but its lyrics nail the total surrender of young love in its early stages – the construction of a world for two that acts as a salve for all the other apathies of teenage life. “Driving in your car,” Costelloe chants, “I want to be wherever you are”.
As before, Underwood’s somewhat bland voice works best as a support and counterpoint to Costelloe’s, as on ‘Pillow’, which finds two lovers haunting each other with their own inadequacies. The track’s louche, sinuous central riff, which wouldn’t be out of place on a Nick Cave or Mark Lanegan record, also flags up an enticing new avenue for the pair to broaden their approach in the future.
The introduction of a rhythm section must have been a tough decision for Big Deal in the early stages of June Gloom’s conception. After all, transforming their songs from the fragile sketches of Lights Out to the punchy compositions of its successor flirts dangerously with mundane rock ‘n’ roll convention. But in Costelloe and Underwood’s increasingly capable hands, June Gloom preserves Big Deal’s essential qualities while injecting new muscle into their lovelorn tales.
This is perhaps best embodied in the album’s final tracks ‘Close Your Eyes’, a relationship post-mortem that builds from intimate confessional to chest-thumping resolution with rare grace. It’s a song Rivers Cuomo would have been proud to write, and represents the culmination of the duo’s work to date. Who knows where Big Deal’s troubled teen flings are headed in the future, but for now, June Gloom marks another confident step forward in the band’s quest to live up to their name in the indie-rock landscape.