While critics generally laud musical growth and increasing maturity from one record to the next, with 'Leaving My Empire' it's difficult not to miss that childlike playfulness that made Fred so much fun to listen to. Of course it's unfair to expect the Cork band to recreate the attributes of their previous work, and in truth, they have achieved a lot with this record, albeit in a different direction than expected. While Fred have always had a thoughtful, introspective side, never has it been more prominent than on 'Leaving My Empire', allowing the band to show off their songwriting skills in an altogether new light.
That Fred trotted off to Montreal to work with Arcade Fire producer Howard Bilerman at his Hotel2Tango studio sounds wonderful on paper, but in truth, his reverb-laden atmospherics do the band few favours, often leaving the intricacies of their songs sounding watery and distant. That said, this "bigger" style of production works brilliantly for them on 'Fears and Remedies', where the gorgeous combination of soft male/female vocals bursts into a forceful chorus, bolstered by agitated strings.
Despite this record's more low-key tone, the quality of these songs shines through, with tunes you're surprised to find yourself humming hours later. The band's four part harmonies are effortlessly on form, never more so than on the buzzing 'Villains' where, for the first time, bassist Jamin O'Donovan shows his true potential, taking lead vocals on the ever so slightly Elvis Costello flavoured track. 'Stereoscope' is another clear highlight, with its brilliantly catchy guitar hook and offbeat drums, while 'Trial By Fire' reverts to more familiar Fred mode, completes with oohs, aahs, and keyboard/guitar interplay.
Their first album recorded since replacing since replacing Eibhlin O'Gorman with new member Carolyn Goodwin, one now begins to wonder how much impact their former keyboardist had on the band's overall personality, particularly the wonderful wit and humour that appears to be lacking on 'Leaving My Empire'. Then again, perhaps it's just a logical progression. No one can keep up that level of energy forever, after all. And if the thought of that leaves you feeling a little disappointed, don't be misled; there may not be the same instantaneous, utterly contagious "jump up and down" fun here as on Fred's previous albums, but there's still not a bad tune to be found in the whole bunch.