It begins with a brush of drum-whisks, a ripple of piano and a voice all a-tremble singing, “Starlings over Brighton pier, what do they know, what do they hear?” Within a minute you know that Bell X1 have undertaken something special and, indeed, revelatory. It’s the musical equivalent of walking into a large wardrobe, rustling through the coat-hangered clothes, and then discovering a passageway that leads into another rather more beguiling, clement world.
If there was concern that Bell X1 had stumbled into a bit of a cul-de-sac with their previous studio album (2011's Bloodless Coup), then Chop Chop turns them right around into a toll-free main road. Sights and sounds shifted as well as a return, singer Paul Noonan notes, "to simpler times, when all around here was fields – piano and guitar, bass and drums; less computers and noises from boxes. Shrink the palette!"
Co-produced by Peter Katis and Thomas Bartlett in Bridgeport, Connecticut last January, Chop Chop is a brief listen (nine songs, just over 37 minutes) but benefits wholly from the band's creative rethink. The second track, A Thousand Little Downers, continues the blindsiding with another piano intro, a finely wrought melody and then – right out of the blue – a surge of cobweb-removing metallic riffery and blasts of brass.
The win-win strategy of keeping the album brisk and to the point means that there isn't a duff song. Careful What You Wish For is another piano-driven mini-anthem, dipped in soul and dripping with barely restrained melancholy. Ditto Diorama, which is the kind of dreamy pop tune you thought Bell X1 might not ever write again. I Will Follow You, Drive-By Summer and Motorcades reconnect with previous templates, but their respective seductiveness drags you in.
By the time you get to Feint Praise, with its Motown basslines and Stax/soul phrasings, you're aware that Bell X1 have released the best album of their career. Chop Chop? Hurry up – a superb album this way comes. bellx1.com
Download: Starlings Over Brighton Pier, Diorama, Careful What You Wish For, Feint Praise