Sound — 7
Being something like the U.K.'s answer to Silversun Pickups, The Joy Formidable gained buzz right from the start when their debut EP, 2008's "A Balloon Called Moaning," displayed a similar appeal to a thickly-layered shoegazing sound with a peppy punk energy to it. With that initial foothold, the band signed with Atlantic Records and teamed up with Muse and Mew producer Rich Costey to release their debut album, 2011's "The Big Roar," continuing to showcase that indie rock/dream pop style to a fault. In response to that arguable sense of monotony, though, their follow-up album, 2013's "Wolf's Law," substantially expanded upon their root sound, with a notable infusion of symphonic elements, a bit of dabbling in blues rock revival, and even trying out a Deftones style of distortion in "The Leopard and the Lung."
But around the time that "Wolf's Law" was released, TJF's founders Ritzy Bryan and Rhydian Dafydd ended their relationship, causing concern for fans wondering if that would also mean the disassociation of the two musically (like Jack White and Meg White), and perhaps even being the end of TJF altogether. But more in the spirit of Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, TJF not only stuck together afterwards, but decided to use those personal trials and tribulations as the artistic fuel for their new album, "Hitch."
Musically, "Hitch" continues to wield a wider array of sounds and instruments like "Wolf's Law" did, with TJF now concerning themselves with weaving a better, more dynamic arc with that expanded repertoire. Their noisy shoegazing side still remains a dependably expected factor, heard in the hazy guitar layers of "Blowing Fire," the sunnier-sounding "Radio of Lips," and "A Second in White," which calls back to the same kind of stampeding riffage used in "Ostrich." They also continue their attempts at a blues rocky sound, heard in the swagger of "The Last Thing on My Mind" (a heavy-handed attempt just as much as the previous album's "Maw Maw Song"), the more reserved verses of contained plodding instruments and Bryan's murmuring vocals in "Running Hands With the Night," and the minimally-arranged "The Gift," where Bryan performs a full-on blues guitar solo after Dafydd makes his rare appearance as lead vocalist atop swelling horns.
But the more impressive aspect of "Hitch" is the strength it creates with acoustic-driven arrangements. It's a goal that's counter-intuitive to the band's thickly-layered shoegazing nature, but it's a juxtaposition of organic sounds that really makes the album shine. This contrast is shown within songs themselves, like "Liana" and "Don't Let Me Know," where acoustic guitar/piano melodies later switch into more powerful arrays of guitars later on, but the songs that refrain from any heavy guitar usage are even more impressive: the morose melody of "The Brook" gets boosted by a fusion of strings/guitar swells, and the slow-building, Damien Rice-esque arrangement of "Underneath the Petal" is easily the high point of the album and the high point of the band's songwriting.
However, that big appeal of "Hitch" comes as a double-edged sword, and the album's length is its biggest fallacy. With its 66-minute runtime, most songs run over five minutes long, and while some of the slow-burning ballads justify their length, other songs like "Radio of Lips," "The Last Thing on My Mind" and "Don't Let Me Know" meander in their riffs, avoiding much-needed edit sessions to slim down on some unnecessary length. And while some of the symphonic fusion heard in their previous album appear again, the string sections added to "A Second in White" and "It's Started" feel thrown in for the hell of it, not quite spicing things up.
Lyrics — 8
Whether it's a show of fearlessness to address their past conflicts with each other, or because they couldn't not write about what they had recently gone through, Bryan and Dafydd's lyrics in "Hitch" revolve around their breakup, and more importantly, the time that occurred after that breakup, and how to cope with such while trying to move forward and continue to remain in each other's lives. The feelings articulated between the two throughout the album show fluctuations and changes of heart (or perhaps more aptly, waves of loneliness), but a constant inability to synch up with one another can't be shaken.
Bryan goes from finally ending the relationship limbo in "Radio of Lips" to reflexively regretting the cemented separation in "The Last Thing on My Mind" and longing over what could've been in "The Brook," but then re-ups in certainty over the separation in the more contentious "It's Started." At this time, Dafydd show his regret and heartbreak in the following "The Gift" ("I've been lost over you for so long"), and while Bryan initially shows a platonic form of consolation in "Running Hands With the Night" ("You're not lost, the city found you"), she still struggles with her own feelings of trying to move on in "Fog (Black Windows)" ("Maybe I've missed it all along / There's still a change I wanna know / Maybe we're not alone") and toxic feelings that still remain in "Underneath the Petal" ("Why does this bad blood flow in the end... Makes me think you're standing in my light / It's hard feeling beaten when your heart's become silent"). But beyond all the complicated feelings, "Don't Let Me Know" shows that ultimately, Bryan and Dafydd are willing to let one another go their own separate ways if need be, but if so, to do the other the favor of going quietly ("Don't let me know / When you're gone / Just let me dream").
Overall Impression — 8
Whereas the colossal haziness of "The Big Roar" set the baseline for TJF, and the symphonic infusion of "Wolf's Law" had the band showing off a sophisticated (albeit blunt) spin off their shoegazing sound, "Hitch" brings forth an impressive new appeal to an organically rich sound while also indulging in the louder shoegazing rock sound that the band know how to execute well. That wielding of the old and new goes hand in hand with the personal theme of breakup that "Hitch" deals with as well, where the old and known may be comfortable, but the new and unknown can be beautifully liberating in its own way, crafting a more emotionally palpable arc throughout the album. While its length may be trying for some people's patience, "Hitch" continues the momentous and progressive growth that TJF have been traveling in their catalog, easily being the most impressive display of advancement thus far.