Avant-garde, experimental music of any genre can often be tricky to nail: not only does it have to properly execute its idiosyncratic vision, but it also has to sound intriguing more often than jarring. In the case of Hippo Lite, the second LP by Drinks, their execution comes with sometimes wildly varying results. Consisting of quirky Welsh singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon and Tim Presley (aka White Fence), the album is heavier on tracks, but shorter in length, than their debut Hamlets on Holiday (34 minutes versus its predecessor’s 41), but just as heavy on both
weirdness and solid songcraft in spite of such weirdness.
Where their debut was both experimental and charming in equal measure, their follow-up has a similar feel, but in a way that’s a bit warmer and more intimate; proof is in acoustic-heavy numbers like “Blue from the Dark” and “Greasing Up”. Perhaps this has to do with how they made the record: the two of them would be holed up for a month in the French hamlet of Saint- Hippolyte-du- Fort (the title’s inspiration) as they spent their time watching, and re-watching, the first three Jurassic Park movies, as well as swimming in rivers and sleeping while the sun was
too hot for them to do much else – all without any Wi-Fi.
As far as atmosphere goes, their choice of activities seems to have worked, as Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox has been quoted as saying he hasn’t been listening to anything other than this album, adding, “At first I was like, this is a mind fuck. Then I became addicted. It is totally brilliant.” Such praise is justified in some respects, but the album’s unapologetic experimentalism – the kind that sounds like it came from spontaneous jamming rather than meticulous, heavily-planned songwriting – can also work against them. The project’s weakest tracks are the latter-album duo of “Ducks” and “Leave the Lights On”, with the former full of sloppy drum breakdowns and repetitive lyrics (“What’s on your mind/Saturation!”), and the latter being just as lyrically tiring and messy in structure.
Where it’s earned, however, is in the tracks where the songwriting is more focused, such as on lead single “Real Outside”; its lo-fi post-punk guitars (think Ought or Talking Heads) and quietly groovy nature being accentuated nicely by Le Bon’s Nico-esque voice. There are also highlights in the strangely psychedelic instrumental piece “In the Night Kitchen”, as well as “Corner Shops”, a folk-pop number not far removed from St. Vincent and Belle and Sebastian in its heavy use of pianos and calm yet sprightly instrumentation, with Le Bon again taking the lead
Although their occasionally minimalistic avant-pop (or “outsider-pop,” as used by Stereogum to describe their debut) is usually compelling in unique ways, Hippo Lite is too uneven an album to have their sound be both musically freewheeling and enjoyable enough for the listener in its eccentricities. It may not be short on ideas, but its focus can sometimes be left to drown in that sea.
Words by Dave MacIntyre