3.5 stars (out of 4)
The subterranean hum of a synthesizer and a slow, menacing clip-clop rhythm announce the return of this Scottish quartet. Their fourth album, “Mirror Mirror” (Domino), pulls back from the thumping momentum of the 2008 “This Gift” and instead embraces a more patient but no less bracing approach. The band focuses on making the most of the spaces between notes and amplifying tiny details for maximum impact: The typewriter-like rhythm in “Ink Free,” the lawnmower synthesizer that threatens to swallow up “Don’t Look Now.”
With a vocal interplay that stamps them as Europe’s answer to X’s Exene Cervenka and John Doe, Adele Bethel and Scott Paterson turn songs into conversations, arguments, psychodramas. Bethel dances across the top of a prominent bass line on “The Model” like a gothic femme fatale, while Paterson’s sparse backing vocals and a spidery guitar function as characters in a mini-film noir. “Breaking Fun” flirts with a disco beat and twists it into something far more sinister, Adele’s wordless harmonies like distant laughter that feeds the disgust of Paterson’s narrator.
The album also emphasizes a previously underappreciated aspect of the band’s attack: the rhythm section of bassist Ailidh Lennon and drummer David Gow. They underpin the magnetic vocals with sparse but danceable rhythms, the “Death Disco” that Johnny Lydon’s Public Image Ltd. once suggested arriving on the spectral “Don’t Look Now.” Guitar is less prominent, used to color in the cracks with minimal dabs of synthesizer, so when one does crash to the forefront in “Rose Red,” it’s thrilling.
With “Axed Actor” and “Bee Song,” Sons and Daughters add to their canon of murder ballads, then finish the album with the sound of a rain storm on a beach enveloping Bethel’s ghostly vocal, a sound that seems to linger long after it fades from earshot.