LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 26: Joe Newman, Thom Green and Gus Unger-Hamilton of Alt-J attend the annual NME Awards at Brixton Academy on February 26, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images)
When my friends and I talk about music, one expression that sometimes comes up is "middle finger record". This could mean a couple of things. Perhaps a band did the consummate artist thing by departing from their usual style and releasing exactly the album they wanted to make without regard for commercial or fan appeal. Or maybe a record label tells an artist that their new album lacks a hit single, and the band reacts accordingly. That's what happened to alt-J.
Alt-J released their debut album An Awesome Wave in late 2012. The following year they took home the prestigious Mercury Prize, awarded annually to the best album released by a U.K. artist. To put this in perspective, alt-J homered in their very first major league at-bat. One would think that would earn them some equity with their label to make whatever music they want. Nonetheless, the U.S. arm of their label balked at the slow-building lead single "Hunger of the Pine".
Alt-J’s American label didn’t view the song as a “big single”, apparently ignoring the fact that An Awesome Wave did pretty well without one. Hackles (mildly) raised, Alt-J resolved to write “the least Alt-J song ever”, taking a “joke riff” Joe had been playing in rehearsals and fleshing it out with the most perfunctory chords and rhythm imaginable. Whereas the band typically spend weeks agonising over every note, "Left Hand Free" was written “in about 20 minutes”. Needless to say, the US label loved it.
Drummer Thom Green advises, “I tried to make the drums as cliched as possible, there’s none of my personality in it.” Gus Unger-Hamilton adds of his keyboard contributions, “I’m doing some kind of organ solo. I don’t know where ‘baby’ came from." And singer/guitarist Joe Newman laments the lyrics, “And I say, ‘Gee whizz,’ which I’m not sure is a phrase I’ve ever uttered before. I can imagine it appealing to American truckers with Good Riddance To Bin Laden stickers!”
The new alt-J album This Is All Yours arrives September 23.
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