TORONTO - Blue Hawaii's debut EP "Blooming Summer," released three years ago, was frozen in a state of sun-kissed bliss, reflecting both a recent trip to Central American paradise undertaken by Montreal duo Alex Cowan and Raphaelle Standell-Preston, as well as the amorous afterglow that coloured their relationship afterwards.
Their brooding debut full-length, "Untogether," is an entirely different experience, belonging squarely to the bleakness of a cold Montreal winter.
Where their 2010 introduction was a snapshot of a couple still with tropical sand between their toes, the ethereal "Untogether" is about separation; from each other (necessitated by Standell-Preston's touring duties with Braids) and from the fertile, close-knit Montreal scene that has both emboldened and challenged the duo in recent years.
"It's a big departure," Cowan agrees over the line from Montreal. "We were feeling very broken about our cultural scene and towards each other and towards a lot of things.
"It got dark and sad quite quickly."
It got noticed just as swiftly.
Where "Blooming Summer" was released quietly to positive if scarce critical notice, the electronic duo has cultivated a much higher profile in advance of the release of "Untogether" this Tuesday, with validating praise flowing in from such influential sources as Pitchfork and Fader.
For Cowan and Standell-Preston (known as Agor and Raph, respectively), these critical plaudits arrive after more than a half-year of sitting on the completed album.
Assembling the record wasn't exactly easy, either. It was a draining six-month process during which Cowan and Standell-Preston hardly ever worked together directly. Though they were living in the same house, neither was home much. So routinely, one half of the duo would spend a night burrowing into a Blue Hawaii tune and then the other would examine and build on that work later, alone.
The solitary nature of that process resulted in an album, unsurprisingly, about distance and alienation, with uncommon musical and lyrical symmetry.
The duo's hypnotic tunes can be disquietingly disjointed at times, with Cowan building their brooding compositions with broken shards of vocals and instrumental flourishes while Standell-Preston's elegiac vocals bob above and below the surface.
"It's super patched together," Cowan said. "It's all these little parts, and that's a really valuable and interesting thing to think about."
It makes for a strikingly dark record, unified in tone.
Yet while Blue Hawaii certainly know their way around the ominous and spare — observe the creeping "Yours to Keep" — light peeks in around the corners from time to time, too.
"One thing we did was go back and edit it to be a little bit more optimistic," Cowan said. "Because some of the songs were just like, stupidly minor — just some kickdrum and a bunch of minor (notes).
"It was the kind of music that I'd probably hate."
The most immediate track in the bunch is "Try to Be," the same tune Pitchfork singled out for early praise. Over a gentle acoustic guitar loop, Standell-Preston coos about self-doubt and identity.
The song was actually one of the record's most effortless to record, completed in one afternoon in Vancouver, with help from a toy guitar belonging to one of Cowan's younger brothers (he's among a family of nine children, if you count his various half- and step-siblings).
"I just told Raph to pick up the guitar, and she was feeling really frustrated about people around her doing well, and it was a bit of jealousy, a bit of frustration — just realizing you're not the person you want to be yet," he said.
Such feelings were, to some degree, caused by the duo seeing the success of some of their peers in Montreal's booming scene, also home to such flourishing like-minded acts as Majical Cloudz, Doldrums, Purity Ring and Grimes, a friend of Cowan's for more than a decade who used to share an apartment with Standell-Preston.
As those artists have taken off to varying degrees — particularly Grimes, the double Juno nominee who has publicly pledged her love for Blue Hawaii on several occasions — the tight music community in Montreal fractured slightly, part of what inspired the duo's ruminations on separation.
While feelings of envy for their friends' success might have trickled into "Untogether," Cowan says he's happy to see his talented peers excel.
And he's not exactly sure if crossover indie success suits Blue Hawaii, anyway.
"There's something about electronic music that I learned in Berlin, and that is that it has this purity to it that seems to be compromised when it's thought about in an indie sphere," Cowan said.
"Nothing makes me cringe more than thinking about an indie-electronic group — I don't even know their music, but it makes me think of the Postal Service, or some indie-pop-electronic band.
"And I just know that's really not the sound I want to go for, which is why it's not really pop music in some ways."
Of course, Blue Hawaii has already changed quite a bit in the years since their debut. Back then, they occasionally referred to the airy album as a "love project," given its romantic roots.
Cowan says the term still applies, in a way.
"(This) is definitely not as rose-coloured, that's for sure," he said. "I'd say it's moved — it's still a love project, but it's definitely gotten more mental.... By going deep into complexity, the main thing that rose up was how beautiful simplicity was."