The last time we checked in with Armies, it was 2015 and the duo of Anna Lombard and Dave Gutter had just put out their first record. At that time, their narrative was that the music was inspired by “French pop duets of the '60s,” a great place from which to draw inspiration (if not entirely where that very well-executed record ended up as far as listener experience). Three years later, I like to imagine that Lombard and Gutter have been listening to a lot of R&B duets of the '70s and '80s. Ashford & Simpson. McDonald & Labelle. Ingram & Austin. Armies aren’t as croony as their forebears, nor so Diane Warren-y about necessitating a big emotional apex, but the vibe is there and, truly, their new record Armies II is super fun, funky, often intense and occasionally ... hilarious?
You guys, Gutter and Lombard are, like, totally grown up now. II starts with “Born Again,” in which the two pose as a couple reminiscing about their rowdy past and hoping they can get their shit together and have a real relationship now that they’ve calmed down. We go from there into “The Shrink,” where Gutter is the doc and Lombard is the patient (kinky! I’m here for it!) and they sync up to try and shake loose some pent-up inner turmoil. This song is a good example of that subtle humor. It starts out like the theme song from the TV show S.W.A.T. and you expect an old cop car to come ripping around the corner — lyrically, I mean. But wait ... are they talking about therapy? “The Shrink” is a delightful example of dramatic irony demonstrating the dissonance of getting older. I like this idea of being playful about all of our normcore adult issues.
However classic the R&B templates are here, there are a lot of deviations that give II its unique sound and keep the record light and refreshing. On “Born Again,” there’s a neat effect of a million electronic Pavarottis chirping out clipped little operatic ‘oh’s; “The Shrink” boasts a crackling that sounds like an old record and a creeping, hard-noir bassline in the vein of Portishead’s “Glory Box.” The track “Ordinary Places” manages a ragtime keyboard riff via what must be some custom patch that sounds like a child’s toy piano, but for robots. And there are dozens of other strange little moments where songs meander away from the expected to a very experimental, electronic place. We have Jon Roods (of Gutter's "other" band Rustic Overtones) and his array of vintage sonic (mellotron, Roland Juno, etc.) toys to thank for a lot of that, it seems.
It’s not all intimate relationship stuff, though. Later in the album the track “The Social Life” takes on the damage that social media is doing to us culturally and personally, and it’s the first spot on the album at which Lombard and Gutter look outward from the deeply emotional themes that frame out this house. It’s a clever and surprisingly moving song, if not necessarily saying anything cutting edge about the loneliness and isolation born of our obsessions with the socials. Very of-the-moment topic, though. I’d love to hear more artists take it on.
One particularly interesting moment comes via “Young Criminals,” a track that employs a choral intro and a simple piano melody to underscore lyrics about simpler, childish times. It reminded me of Chance the Rapper’s “Same Drugs,” but a little bit more straightforward, the timing and cadence founded on a pop format where Chance’s foundation comes from the weird meters of jazz. I found it heartwarming and innocently charming, but it’s probably also the one spot on the record that feels plainly annexed.
Which brings me to this necessary point. It is an absolute truth that all pop, rock, blues, and pretty much every contemporary genre of music has a heritage that started with or was deeply influenced by people of color at some point in history, and later often profited upon by white artists. Full stop. It's possible that one might take issue with how much R&B technique is on this record, sort of glazed over for a whiter audience (they called this “blue-eyed soul” back in the day, Youthful Readers, and it was very much A Thing™). Fine and yes; similar concerns could be raised on most albums made by white humans. Here, this particular music feels very much crafted in loving, educated tradition, and seems very much like a type of music Gutter and Lombard grew up listening to.
If they ever make a remake of the ridiculous(ly awesome) 1983 film The Hunger, I pray they license the Armies song “Nothin’ To Play With” for the soundtrack. It would live in perfection nestled between the original’s crazy mix of Bauhaus and classical music — and hey, didn’t Gutter record a song with David Bowie that one time? I'd listen to it while looking at the sunset through venetian blinds and contemplate the world of opposites painted within — “the cure is on my tongue but the poison is on my lips.” Here is our breakup song, and also our psychedelic space-jam outro. This song is freakin’ rad.
Look, Dave Gutter has been prolific enough for long enough that you already know if you like his voice or not. Here, he sounds fantastic, all snarls and plaintive cries, and he knows how to use the instrument and mix it to sound tight. Lombard is of course a lovely foil to that grit, and they have energy and a fierce-sounding devotion on II that puts a 2018 spin on a duet style that was top of the pops in the '80s. You know what? More duets, please. I’ve got a taste for them now. I’ve got … dare I say it? A hunger (yep, no, don’t get up, I’ll see myself out).
Armies II | by Armies | record release with Kenya Hall Band | Sep 7 | Fri 9 pm | Aura, 121 Center St, Portland | $15-18 | www.auramaine.com