When Thunder, Lightning, Strike arrived in 2004, its delirious, sample-based fusion of 70s, funkified car chase music, Bollywood soundtracks, Double Dutch cheerleader chants, and Sonic Youth-aping guitar noise, made Ian Parton’s The Go! Team project the freshest sound in town, revered by critics and lapped up by audiences. It was music expressly designed to put a big, childish grin on your stupid face, freely tapping into a sense of nostalgia for things that most people listening won’t have experienced firsthand. Listening back to the album today reveals an album out of step with time, its lo-fi aesthetic lending it a hard-earned timelessness.

Of course, I’m also reminded of why I got sick of listening to the thing in the first place. There’s only so much Saturday morning cartoon, kaleidoscopic cheeriness that a (hopefully) sane mind can take before it all seems overly calculated and disingenuous. Call me cynical, but I firmly believe that happy music is bloody hard to pull off. And happy music featuring the shrill tones of a recorder? Nigh on fucking impossible. On his debut, Ian Parton caught lightning in a bottle and pulled off a minor miracle: a happy-sounding album that didn’t start to grate until the upteenth listen. Unfortunately, with every release since, the rule of diminishing returns has been applicable, and the shelf lives of The Go! Team’s albums have shortened. To the point that now, on Semicircle, album number five, I can’t get more than ninety seconds into opening number, ‘Mayday’, without wanting to pierce my ears with sewing needles.

Now, obviously, that last statement’s an exaggeration designed to evoke righteous indignation, and it probably says more about me and my temperament than it does about the inherent worth of the music contained within Semicircle. But you came here for a subjective take, so that’s what you’re going to get. The problem with ‘Mayday’, and with the album as a whole, is that it makes up for what it lacks in songwriting nous with a load of extraneous bells and whistles in the form of morse code-tapping, steel drums, sitar, cheerleader chants, glockenspiel, and more horns than the stampede scene from The Lion King (get it? Because the wildebeest have ho… forget it). In some cases, it’s literally the sound of bells and whistles. Ian Parton has thrown everything in his sonic arsenal at Semicircle. The album is so full to bursting with signifiers that, hey, This Is A Go! Team Album that it veers uncomfortably close to self-parody, or at least self-pastiche (if that’s a thing).

But then, the project has an unmistakable aesthetic. It is, however, an aesthetic that has gradually evolved (or should that be devolved?). When Thunder, Lightning, Strike first came out, all of the vocals were sampled and played a part in contributing to the album’s stitched together, DIY charm. Vocals were also fairly sparingly deployed, which allowed the paradoxically blown-out intricacies of Parton’s productions to shine through. Copyright quibbles for the US release necessitated some changes, and rapper, Ninja, was brought on board, followed later by vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, Angela ‘Maki’ Won-Yin Mak, as part of the live line-up. On subsequent albums, there were still the odd predominantly instrumental tracks, but vocals had come to the foreground. Guest vocalists featured heavily, from big names like Chuck D and Deerhoof’s Satomi Matsuzaki to a legion of unknown Soundcloud singers. For me, however, The Go! Team’s vocals have always been their least appealing feature, sitting as they do, almost exclusively, on a fairly narrow spectrum between Tolerably Twee to Irredeemably Irritating. Being cheerleaders for optimism and a better world is all well and good, but actually listening to cheerleading within the context of pop music? No thanks.

On Semicircle, Parton enlists a number of vocalists, from Go! Team veterans to relative unknowns to the teenagers of The Detroit Youth Choir. Kudos to Parton for heeding the old Hollywood adage of not working with young children and animals. This isn’t a kids choir, so isn’t unlistenable (I’m looking at you, Ryan Gosling’s Dead Man’s Bones), but I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed their contributions. And they’re all over this thing, incessantly spelling out M-A-Y-D-A-Y on the opener, telling us their star signs for some unknown reason on ‘Semicircle Song’, and closing out the album on the anthem for optimism, ‘Getting Back Up’. A big issue is not just with the vocal stylings themselves but also with the vocal melodies. And this applies to all the singing on the album, not just that by the choir. Often the vocal melodies religiously, and simplistically, follow the melody of the lead instrument, leading to a lack of interesting melodic counterpoint and contrast, and, in almost all cases, they’re the kind of Sesame Street sing-songy melodies that no one over the age of five would unironically enjoy.

The best songs on Semicircle are those that most resemble the works of twee-pop darlings like St. Etienne, Camera Obscura, or Belle and Sebastian. ‘The Answer’s No, Now What’s The Question’, and ‘Plans Are Like A Dream You Organise’ feel like relatively fully realised songs, with vocals that have actual emotional nuance. Darenda Weaver, who Parton came across on Bandcamp, acquits herself particularly well on clear album standout, ‘The Answer’s No’, whilst Utrecht indie-rocker Annelotte de Graaf’s Dutch-accented singing fits in nicely on ‘Plans’, even if she is, at times, guilty of replicating the melodic line of the instrumentation (I know, I know, it’s clearly a bugbear of mine). ‘If There’s One Thing You Should Know’ features mainstay, Maki, on vocals, and boasts probably the catchiest vocal hook on the album. Which makes the prominence of steel drums on the track only more regrettable. Ninja gets to unleash some decidedly un-hip bars on the faux-tough ‘She’s Got Guns’, which sounds like something The Herbaliser might have cooked up ten years ago, with added wah-wah-pedal-ploitation. In between, Parton gives us a few mainly instrumental interludes of varying degrees of substance. There’s the blown out bass, handclaps, and pinballing vocal samples of ‘Hey!’, surely the Go! Teamiest song title ev… Oh for fuck’s sake, why is someone singing in French now? This album’s like one of those indie coming-of-age films that tries way too hard. ‘Chico’s Radical Decade’ is inoffensively pleasant, but doesn’t do much beyond make you think, “oh yeah, remember when Lemonjelly were a thing?” And ‘Tangerine/Satsuma/Clementine’ cycles through a couple of ideas twice and says see you later, like the kid at the party that no one remembers was even there.

Semicircle isn’t a bad album per se. There are enough moments on here, as well as two or three genuinely decent tracks, to make it worth a listen. And if you’re a Go! Team fan that’s stuck with them all this time, then, rest assured, the whole rogue marching band concept does not mean the departure in sound has been radical. At all. You might miss some of that old guitar noise, though. Whatever the case, The Go! Team are still one of the most unabashedly ebullient bands around. It’s just that, with the world as it is, it feels like every day there are fewer reasons to be cheerful. Listening to Semicircle can feel a bit like hanging out with that one friend, who always seems blissfully unaware and pathologically optimistic, and just tells you to have a positive mental attitude. To which it’s hard not to react with, “oh, fuck off, will you?”