Alt-J’s 2012 debut, An Awesome Wave, was a friction-filled marriage between experimentalism and pop, echoing Radiohead at its most electronic and The Flaming Lips’ willingness to let their freak flags fly. Even the most vociferous critics of the Leeds, England-based quartet couldn’t argue that it wasn’t an ambitious effort. When the band was awarded Britain’s prestigious Mercury Prize for one of the year’s best albums, the distinction felt well-earned — if only for the number of ideas thrown against the wall that actually stuck.
Two years later the quartet has become a trio after the departure of bassist Gwil Sainsbury. While the personnel change is only surface deep (additional musicians were recruited for both recording and touring), it’s difficult not to subconsciously tie the lineup paring to Alt-J’s newly streamlined sound. Remaining members Joe Newman, Thom Green and Gus Unger-Hamilton have slowed down the pace of their explorations, dabbling in one sonic hue at a time rather than splashing a rainbow across every track.
This approach makes the grab bag of elements on their sophomore album, This Is All Yours, much more identifiable — even if the lines drawn between them are full of switchbacks and loops. The Miley Cyrus-sampling single “Hunger of the Pine” briefly dares listeners to think of Alt-J in mainstream terms (though the band has noted in interviews that the label didn’t consider the track a potential hit). But the surprising appearance of rockabilly riffs (“Left Hand Free”), folk harmonies (“Warm Foothills”) and a medieval choir of recorders (“Garden of England — Interlude”) still signifies a band happy to hang out in its art-rock wheelhouse a bit longer.-Laura Studarus