June’s shopping bag: Bought a pile of new records while on holiday. It’ll take all summer to work through them.
JUNIOR BOYS – It’s All True
Junior Boys’ charms generally outweigh their chief shortcoming – namely, that they don’t write songs (go ahead, try singing something other than “Hazel” or “In The Morning”) – because Greenspan’s a good singer and the JB groove style (implied over explicit, nearly every time) fosters some seriously polyrhythmic dancefloor contortions. The records sound great. Still, I always get the sense they’re making it up as they go along, cut ‘n’ pasting fragments together until they find an outro. Wonder how much tape splicing they’d’ve done in the days before Pro Tools. Lots, I bet. But when they’re on form, watch out: meandering or not, “You’ll Improve Me” and “Itchy Fingers” are remix-ready floor fillers, and the dizzy echo orgy at the end of “Second Chance” is some kind of stirring. “Playtime” is as moody as film music, another in JB’s long line of narcotic time-outs. The brittle, supersized “Banana Ripple” sounds like a standalone single tacked on as a reissue bonus track, but it salvages True’s slightly undercooked final third.
DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE – Codes And Keys
With the whitest man in indie at the helm I never expected something as boss as the groovy Neu!-stomp of “Doors Unlocked And Open,” but I’ve played it a lot and it’s wearing well. DCFC never nursemaided me through any O.C.-type tribulations, so I’m not weepy over the abandonment of a classic Cutie sound; the fleshier production and fatter textural presence of Codes And Keys are welcome touches that put a few tufts of chest hair on that weedy, Eng Lit professor’s voice of Gibbard’s. He seems less needy now. Of course, he also married up. Cross that off the bucket list. Side one’s where the action is, where grasp meets reach: the title track’s thumping piano and orchestral dolour, the nagging guitar riff and helicoptering vocal eruptions running through “You Are A Tourist,” the unhurried Another Green World-like intro into “Unobstructed Views.”
THE CARS – Move Like This
After a long hibernation, the best summer stock band since The Beach Boys takes a spin down reunion road, delivering one stone gem (“Sad Song”) and enough personable second-drawer nuggets to make the wait worthwhile. Apart from the grin-inducing Pavlovian response to old gulpy floating them lyrical airballs over that choppy, all-American new wave bounce, Move Like This does suffer a bit for the big hole left by Ben Orr’s death (cancer, 2000): namely, the helium element his lovely, crushed croon brought to those thick vocal harmony stacks. Still, Ric Ocasek remains a force of nature, with loads of good song ideas brought at least halfway to fruition through sensibly simpatico production and a snappy vibe that eschews the band’s occasional experimental streak of yore for immediate thrills. Pitched halfway between the airbrushed pop of mid-80s Cars or “Emotion In Motion,” and the engaging but dressed-down rock of Ocasek’s later solo oeuvre, Move Like This could stand a little more song sculpting: the half of the album produced by Jacknife Lee (including “Sad Song,” “Blue Tip and “Hits Me”) is a mite more vivacious than the band’s self-prods. But you know, these guys bounced before anyone said scram, and the timing of their re-emergence is peachy.
ARCHITECTURE IN HELSINKI – Moment Bends
Moment Bends starts promisingly but by the end of the record I wanted to throttle these guys. I think the brief was to create mainstream songs with as little instrumental ornamentation as possible, but the hollowness is maddening. There’re five people on the back cover. I want to make a joke about Australians and light bulbs. Three of the first tunes are serious replayables, throwback synthpop of various ‘80s colours, featuring neat, fat keyboard leads and keeper vocal melodies, but the remainder plays like a band running over budget and out of time. Moment Bends loses the bet where minimalism covers barrenness.
FRIENDLY FIRES – Pala
Strobe-light intensity keyboard pop that’s more clotted than kinetic, a shortfall they might’ve addressed with a single, proper outside producer. Friendly Fires’ take on synthpop – especially the fast songs – largely shuns vintage sounds and playable arrangements for stuttering, chopped-up beds of keyboards that occasionally overwhelm: I almost tossed “Live Those Days Tonight” and “Blue Cassette” overboard due to excessive chatter. No flies on the spectacular “Hurting,” though, which lights the sky like a full moon bursting through cloud cover and maintains its star turn for five minutes of superballing house squibs, Ed Macfarlane’s Daryl Hall-like tenor-into-falsetto lead, and a no-quit chorus worthy of early MTV. Delirium on ‘roids, and the best song they’ve given us yet. I can’t hear many of Pala’s songs passing the singer-with-guitar litmus test, but the sheer effort expended upon keeping “True Love,” “Chimes” and “Hawaiian Air” from collapsing is worth a huzzah or two.