For pop fans, the young London brother duo Disclosure's 2013 debut, Settle, was something rare: Dance music that was both cutting-edge and easily digestible. Guy and Howard Lawrence's sharp songwriting skills goosed clear verse-chorus structures (the U.S. top 10 crossover hit "Latch," which launched Sam Smith's triumphant solo career) and theme-and-variation sample-fests (the preacher sermon cut-up "When a Fire Starts to Burn") to create the best dance album of 2013 -- a singular record that both Berlin-bound uber hipsters and neon-clad festivalgoers could agree on.
For the latter group, its impact went even deeper. Settle was a genuine line in the sand, one that helped move the new rave generation away from EDM's blunt blare and toward quicker, slicker and subtler beats. The fact that "deep house" -- which for decades intimated jazzy chords, R&B touchstones and a late-night glow -- has become a millennial term that essentially amounts to "not-shallow house" can be laid, however unwittingly, at the Lawrences' feet.
Disclosure's sophomore album, Caracal, named after a species of African wildcat, doesn't go wrong, precisely -- it's less a strikeout than a drawn-out walk. The Lawrences deserve credit for being unafraid to switch up their style: Most of the tracks' tempos are slower than on Settle, a deceleration that's very of the moment, as big-room DJs (and crossover hits like Felix Jaehn's remix of OMI's "Cheerleader") move toward a hazier, more relaxed sound dubbed "tropical house." If only that confidence were matched by the actual songs. Like too many dance artists before them, from Soul II Soul to Deee-Lite, Disclosure has traded in its debut's hook-heavy, nonstop good time for a more relaxed follow-up designed for respectability beyond the EDM world -- as if dance music couldn't possibly be enough. The gliding basslines and bright synths of Settle mostly languish amid Caracal's torpor. The Smith reunion "Omen" gallops at a comfortable tempo but never gathers the tension that made "Latch" an indelible modern-day classic. It's like much of Caracal: immaculately constructed and stylish, but largely a nonevent.