The talented young British brothers Howard and Guy Lawrence (21 and 24 respectively) earned instant acclaim for their 2013 debut album “Settle,” an invigorating electro-pop marvel featuring a number of terrific guest appearances and some of the best dance pop in recent memory.
Guy Lawrence told PrideSource in 2014 that he and his brother, although straight, were inspired by house and garage music in the gay clubs they visited in their native UK. Those exhilarating sounds informed their stellar debut, which was hailed by critics and was widely recognized as one of 2013’s best albums. They play D.C.’s EchoStage Oct. 21-22.
Numerous tracks from “Settle” became club favorites, including in prominent gay venues, and they were even rumored to be working with Madonna on her last album (which never came to fruition). Anticipation for the sequel to “Settle” has been sky-high. Unfortunately, their eagerly anticipated follow-up album “Caracal,” released Sept. 25, falls well short of the lofty standards set by their debut.
Trouble begins right away with the opening track “Nocturnal,” feature phenom the Weeknd on vocals. It’s bland and repetitive mid-tempo electro-R&B with very little in the way of a memorable melodic hook. Disclosure puts “Nocturnal” in the prominent opening slot, but the song itself is no more than average at best. It sounds like a Ne-Yo throwaway and drags on for nearly seven tedious minutes. Not a good omen.
Speaking of omens, the big reunion with Sam Smith, the openly gay British superstar who exploded on the international pop scene with his feature on Disclosure’s “Latch” from “Settle,” is entitled “Omen.” Unfortunately it lacks the immediacy and excitement of “Latch” and seems little more than an excuse for the team to get back together. The melody is forgettable and the track slinks away forgotten as soon as the last beats stutter out.
“Holding On,” featuring esteemed jazz and R&B vocalist Gregory Porter, is surprisingly limp and dated. Its beats and production tricks would have sounded fresh perhaps in 1997. “Hourglass,” with the talented New York-based R&B duo Lion Babe on vocals, has a nice groove and some terrific vocals. Lion Babe adds some elegance and charm, but again the song is betrayed by insipid electronic rhythms that don’t have much punch.
The big guest appearance is New Zealand pop star Lorde, who adds her breathy vocals to the track “Magnets.” It’s stripped down electro-pop similar to what Lorde offered up on her debut album. It’s one of the better moments on “Caracal,” which isn’t saying a whole lot. It’s clear the Howard brothers were intent on emulating Lorde’s sound and while they do an adequate job, it’s also faintly pointless. The track might have been good enough to make the cut on Lorde’s debut album — maybe — but it certainly would not have been a standout. As a high-powered collaboration between two exciting and influential new artists, it underwhelms.
Miguel is the other high-profile guest appearance, and his vocals on “Good Intentions” are fine, but the song itself is yet another that’s just average. Disclosure brings in some of the most exciting pop artists around and does basically nothing with them. These songs could be sung by anybody and would have the same (minimal) impact. They’re not horrible; just a huge letdown after “Settle.”
Artistic exploration is fine. The downside is that sometimes it reveals artistic limitations. While their debut was exciting and bold, “Caracal” feels uncertain and cautious. But they’re young. Hopefully more exciting things are yet to come from this promising duo.