A grim romanticism has gripped British pop since the days of Morrissey, from Robert Smith's mopey New Wave, through Thom Yorke's existential angst, to Chris Martin's haunted piano epics. The brainchild of Matt Hales, Aqualung is gripped by a similar tender pain, awash in luxurious piano-driven melodies that form a bed for Hales' downcast baritone croon. Musically, Hales vacillates between ornate ballads whose chilly demeanor recalls early Radiohead, and breathy, dreamy pop, whose echoey English dancehall tone reinforces Hales' vocal similarity to Rufus Wainwright. Classically trained, Hales is also the son of record-shop owners, and one feels the tug between his majestic and more straightforwardly pop impulses. "Brighter Than Sunshine," off his debut American release, Strange and Beautiful, is a fine illustration, working a simple Beatles melody on piano, tastefully abetted by trilling strings. The album's other highlight, "Left Behind," is the other side of the coin: big, epic, charging rock enveloped in a woozy, swirling sway.


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