Norwich three-piece Alto45 make self-described “homemade pop from three men in labcoats.” Emphasis on the homemade: there seems to be a particular focus on the DIY aspects of the groupʼs music. But just because theyʼre proud of their homemade handiwork doesnʼt mean theyʼre embracing the bedroom artist aesthetic. In fact, on The Spectrum Sings, their first album since their 2005 debut 101101 and only their second album during their 10+ year career, Alto45 aim for a pretty glossy, clean sound to complement their straightforward indie pop songs.

This approach works especially well for opening track and lead single ʻThe Robot Heart,ʻ a really solid pop tune centered around a driving bass guitar rhythm and synthesizer-as-lead-guitar melodies. The vocals from frontman James Boyce are a tad clunky, but itʼs a pretty great and memorable song, and the combination of traditional indie rock with some basic synthesizer embellishment works really well.

However, while the following 10 tracks stick pretty closely to this blueprint, the results are generally hit-or-miss, the hits being vaguely nice and the misses being vaguely boring. Part of the problem, as mentioned, is Boyceʻs voice, which seemingly has no desire to do anything with these songs but get through them. On some of the mid-tempo songs, he ends up sounding almost endearingly laid back, but for the most part he deadens the impact of songs that might sound a lot more refined in the hands of a better vocalist.

The bigger problem, however, simply the fact that the sounds here just really arenʼt all that interesting. Even on ʻThe Robot Heart,ʼ the synthesizers sound cheap and cliche, as if they were the preset on a bad synth keyboard or pirated software program. The use of these kinds of instruments is fine on a song-to-song basis, but these kinds of sounds pervade The Spectrum Sings to the point where it becomes the albumʼs defining characteristic.

But cheap synths neednʼt be a problem in and of themselves: The Magnetic Fieldsʼ early records, for example, were almost entirely based on the use of cheap, lo-fi synth sounds, and those are some of the best albums of the 90s. The problem is really just the unimaginative way theyʼre used at times here. Alto45 often manage to capture interest sheerly through their vocal hooks and general pop craftsmanship, but when the hooks are weaker, as on ʻOmnichord Song,ʼ the weakness of the arrangements becomes very apparent. A lot of the time, the sounds on here are so homogenous and boring that even the most standard of deviations, such as the new wave drumbeat on ʻHolland,ʼ feels like a breath of fresh air.

Sadly, some of the best pop songs on here are paired with the most bland instrumentals: the moody and catchy ʻI Donʼt Know Whatʼs Good For Meʼ is hampered by a really lame synth backing track, while potential anthem ʻLetʼs Get Lostʼ feels flat (and features some goofy vocoderʼd backing vocals). Just as bad, the more imaginative and dynamic arrangements, like the brassy, dancey ʻHollandʼ and closer ʻFor All The Things I Didnʼt Doʼ are built around some of the most forgettable songs on the album. The overwhelmingly mixed results here just lead to a really average set of songs.

Ultimately, the lack of variation and the dull arrangements are forgivable on a single song basis, but make for an unmemorable listen over the course of the whole album. Which is truly a shame, because the songwriting here is actually pretty good at times. Quite a few of these songs (ʻWe Donʼt Need Machines,ʼ ʻGodspeed Your Heart To Me,ʼ and especially the previously mentioned ʻThe Robot Heartʼ) manage to rise above the crop and leave an impression, and these songs sound like the work of a promising pop group. Still, itʼs a bad sign when an album of 35 minutes feels like itʼs dragging partway through.