The 2018 debut of the studio project audiobooks -- the duo of producer/engineer David Wrench and singer/artist/model Evangeline Ling -- was a theatrical, form-shifting work born largely out of improvisation. When they re-teamed for the follow-up, they took a more deliberate, streamlined approach, focusing on their playfully arty, club-minded post-punk and techno tracks for the creation of Astro Tough. A nonetheless moody, volatile set of songs, it also finds the duo committing to Ling as sole vocalist. They set the scene with pulsing bass, upbeat hi-hat chicks, and a repeated melodic synth hook on opener "The Doll," whose vocals in the first half consist of a spoken word narrative involving a child and a lost doll. Adding layers of synths to looped beats, the second half switches to DJ-friendly sung vocal samples that include the phrase "So hard to let go." Elsewhere, "First Move" has a more melodic, dance-pop disposition, while "Driven by Beef" features an increasingly outraged Ling as she rants about acne and enemies atop overdriven synth bass and skittering drums. Wry highlight "The English Manipulator" ("He was so rude and well-mannered") offers another danceable narrative, this time with colorful bleeps and bloops ornamenting dramatic sung-spoken recollections and the contrasting melodic choruses. When audiobooks occasionally opt out of dance spaces for something more jazz-rock-oriented ("Blue Tits") or for the melancholy Baroque pop of closer "Farmer," these tracks still manage to sound like they belong, as they play into the album's self-medicating, easily triggered emotional arc. A welcome evolution from the debut, Astro Tough's lingering inconsistency is part of the fun.
© Marcy Donelson /TiVo