Words by Yanni Markovina.
Six years after its release, ‘Jona Vark’ by Melbourne duo Gypsy & The Cat (Xavier Bacash and Lionel Towers) is still an absolute pop gem, and sounds just as fresh now as it did then. The melody is simple yet ingenious, the production tasteful, and the overall tone borders on cheeky and sincere. I bring this up because ‘Jona Vark’, along with its parent album Gilgamesh, while not the greatest offerings of contemporary indie-synth ever produced (although fairly close) did attain a certain amount of respect and acknowledgement due to their subtle originality. “Electronic soft-rock” is what Bacash and Towers once described their music as. Maybe not the most clear or appealing sounding genre tag, but it was one that seemed to fit them perfectly, and explained their distinctive sound quite well. Virtual Islands is the duo’s third album, and although it is a little sad to say, some of the individualistic magic is lacking from it – and as a result the album suffers.
More than anything, the problem with Virtual Islands is that it sounds far too much like a retreading of its own genre, without daring to be truly adventurous. This is made especially evident by a slew of songs that sound like thinly veiled attempts at rewriting other songs. ‘Inside Your Mind’ for instance, despite being a relatively catchy song, features a rhythm that sounds far too much like ‘Electric Feel’ by MGMT for it to be taken seriously. ‘I Just Wanna Be Somebody Else’ lives up to its title in that it so desperately wants to be The Knife’s ‘Heartbeats’, with the similarities in tone, melody, and structure being so painfully obvious that it is hard to see anything else. The album hits a roadblock with ‘Life’, a plodding, glitzy facsimile of the Bill Withers classic ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, which harbours that kind of cheesy self-assuring sentiment one expects to find in a song titled ‘Life’. Acoustic closer ‘Naomi’, a saccharine wheeze of a post-Britpop track, sounds like the much younger brother of Blur’s ‘Tender’ – with most if not all the raw emotion subtracted from it.
Despite this though, Gypsy & The Cat do know how to write a pop song, showcasing song after song that their skill at crafting the perfect earworm melodies. Virtual Islands contains a pretty standard affair of audacious keyboards and shiny acoustic guitars, which do help bring life to the tracks on display here. There is respite: ‘Paris’ is a charming exploration of the joys of freedom and escape to a more idealised life, set to an anthemic showcase of reflective electro-pop pulses. ‘Tragedies Of A Love Song’ (possibly the best song on the album) has a gloriously 1980s aesthetic to it (helped in no small part by some cool jangly guitar hooks), and is simply a fun, peppy tune that sounds effortlessly ebullient despite its melancholic lyrics. And the bombastically titled ‘Odyssey Of The Streets’ is probably destined to be most divisive song of the entire album, as it can be seen as either a blustering and foolish attempt at making something as grand as ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, or an ambitiously shape-shifting pocket symphony of truly inspiring proportions. In all honesty, it might be a little bit of both, as it seems to move through its sections far too quickly for a sense of gravitas to be left behind. Personally however, I believe it is one of the album’s best tracks, for aside from it being an absolute pleasure to listen to, it at least it sounds confident in its attempt to shake up a formula.
There’s nothing offensive about Virtual Islands, it’s just a shame that it couldn’t attempt to be a tad more original in an increasingly unoriginal genre. There are good tracks to be found here and nothing is really bad, and to be frank, you can party pretty well to the stuff here. But having said that, you would lose no sleep if you listened to MGMT, The Knife, or Foster The People instead.