It’s been an intense few years for a lot of us, including Jean-Phillip Grobler, founder and frontman for the semi-retro-electro-pop outfit St. Lucia. He spent a decade grinding it out in Brooklyn, releasing three albums and developing a reputation as a versatile and fun-loving songwriting savant with a natural ear for Fleetwood Mac, Genesis, and other pop perennials. After having their third child during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Grobler and his wife, Patti Beranek, who also plays in St. Lucia, decamped for Konstanz, Germany, to be closer to Beranek’s family (along with, presumably, all the obvious reasons).
It’s a bit of a relief to hear the obvious unbridled joy in the grooves of “Utopia,” the fourth full-length St. Lucia slab, released in October. Along with a renewed enthusiasm for spontaneity and improvisation, the songs seem both looser and more resolute, as though the fresh air has breathed new vitality into St. Lucia’s sound. The hooks drive as hard as anything the band has made before, and there’s a sense of liberation in the rousing, propulsive lead single “Another Life,” the sexy, slinky “Gimmie the Night,” and the album’s entire aesthetic sensibility. It’s a work of renewed creativity and freshly stoked lust for life.
Grobler was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and was pretty much always an avid student of music, cutting his teeth in the Drakensberg Boys Choir and indulging in ‘80s pop and R&B, not getting into rock music until later. Although he still counts himself as a Radiohead fan, his pop influences always won out, which made him a perfect fit for the late-aughties/early-teens New York indie scene, with its slick hair, synthesizers, and new-wave fetishism. Although inspired by a similar mix of pop, post-punk, and yacht rock, St. Lucia was always more sincere than most of its peers, with a dedicated sense of musicality that couldn’t be faked.
They’ve released new records every few years since 2012, but it’s clear that St. Lucia’s greatest joy is playing live and participating in a larger musical community. The live shows are unpredictable, occur in all sorts of venues, and can include elements of storytelling, crowd interaction, and unexpected variations on familiar tunes. Grobler has collaborated with A-listers including Charli XCX, Foster the People, and others. While Utopia makes no effort to disguise the couple’s relief at having moved out of Brooklyn, they will no doubt thrive on the road, reconnecting with friends and fans and spreading the happiness in their new material.
St. Lucia plays a tuneful, danceable show with well-practiced moves, enviable attention to detail, and a rare sense of conviviality. Fans of timeless ‘70s and ‘80s pop, those with slightly artier tastes, and certainly anyone who loves to dance will find much to love. To prepare, check out the breakout 2016 album Matter, dip into Grobler’s selection of remixes, and definitely give Utopia a spin, preferably with the sound up and the windows down. Dare to breathe again.
St. Lucia plays a sold-out 9:30 Club Thursday, October 13.
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