Thoughts on new music from January and February, wrapped up in a tidy package. Four of these will be on the year-end Top 25.
CHAIRLIFT – Something
The first Chairlift LP had one absolutely delightful art-pop number (“Evident Utensil”) and some nice second bananas, but still I bundled these guys with the likes of Captain, Go! Team, Black Kids and other pan flashes: briefly intriguing pretenders destined for shuffle play purgatory. But Something is something else – an unexpected Great Leap Forward into superior songwriting and all the relevance that attends it. Chairlift, down to a girl-boy duo with studio assistance, is still mining glistening ‘80s-biting dream pop, but nearly every song on Something has a moment – a winning chorus, a dramatic payoff, a lovely sound design – that lofts the band past the middle-of-the-pack and into the upper echelon of the newish new wave we’ve been listening to for half a decade. It helps that Caroline Polachek has a lovely, flexible voice and the brief to keep the lyrics audible. But the music’s got a lot of hustle, too: “I Belong In Your Arms” sounds like a breezy 45 from about 1984; “Sidewalk Safari” churns over wobbly, interweaving melodic lines; “Met Before” kitchen sinks stately keys and heavily reverbed girl-group vocals over thudding Californian garage rock. On a cooler tip, “Frigid Spring” is delectable, a watercolour of breathy coos, twinkling keys and acoustic washes, heir to the debut album’s promisingly arty singles. Recall that “Bruises” was an iPod Nano jingle in 2008; Something debunks hipster taint with surpassingly strong material.
PORCELAIN RAFT – Strange Weekend
One of the most stimulating efforts I’ve heard from the endless pack of studio rats masquerading as bands, Porcelain Raft’s appeal lies in massed layers of trebly, kaleidoscopic sounds morphing into warm whorls of psychedelic dream pop, with some spectacularly beautiful results. Strange Weekend – the first solo album from 39-year-old serial collaborator Mauro Remiddi – is one of those relatively rare treats where the artist attains impressive conceptual cohesiveness through playing everything himself, filtering ostensibly rock-based instrumentation through the mix with cleverly deconstructionist flair. Especially whatever the hell he’s using for rhythm beds! The drum patterns are chopped, pureed and liquefied, but never at the expense of the momentum which drives and anchors Weekend’s swooningly appealing singles “Put Me To Sleep” and “Until You Speak From Your Heart.” Remiddi seems to have tapped into a sort of nostalgic prettiness despite the clatter – an old trick Thomas Dolby mastered on The Golden Age Of Wireless – but some of the more graceful passages (“Is It Too Deep For You?” and especially “Backwords”) recall Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’s woozy stateliness. Dolby and OMD were terrific at invoking old grandeur through modern synthetic means, and the best moments of Strange Weekend repeatedly get there. Remiddi’s singing voice, which ranges from a harsh, Bolanesque lisp to a thin, keening tenor, is suited to both the material and the sibilant mix. On the closing “The Way In” there’s even a stab at Brett Anderson-scale ballad singing over appropriately melancholic strums and whooshes. This guy’s a great architect.
AIR – Le Voyage Dans La Lune
On the one hand, from the perspective of sound and intent, a moderately encouraging step away from the soporific, airbrushed fussiness that dominated the records they made in 2007 and 2009. On the other hand, from the perspective of songs and execution, a discouraging affirmation of Air’s enduring staleness. I was in the record store the week before this came out when some guy told his friend, “I’m really nervous about the new Air record.” You may recall Air occupying an exalted space in people’s minds a dozen years ago, riding a wave of otherworldly early singles, a dizzyingly grand debut album and a darkly affecting soundtrack LP. But now the disappointments outnumber the triumphs, and all the weaker records have come in succession. La Voyage Dans La Lune, an imaginary soundtrack to a century-old silent film, is a well-intentioned bummer. In reaching back for the feel of old glories, but failing to deliver anything you might remember an hour after playing it, Air’s bag is no longer worthy of such record-store hand-wringing. It’s always a downer to realize the goodwill’s spent, isn’t it.
FIELD MUSIC – Plumb
Fervidly inventive yet frustratingly fitful, Plumb’s hooks race by like samples from the golden age of T.V. show theme writing, dangling earworms long enough to capture attention but not to pay the pleasure zone. That flaw undermines the nicely shaped narrative, great sound (“significantly less compression and limiting than most contemporary records,” boasts the liner) and deep well of creative mojo. Plumb’s both too taxing and too brief: 35 minutes is a long time to absorb ideas whizzing by at warp speed; conversely, few of Plumb’s 15 fragmented tunes can stand on their own. Despite attention spans shaved to fractions of what they were in simpler times, pop music’s digestibility – not advertising jingle pop nor T.V. theme pop – is still founded on hook deployment. On Plumb? Well, how many unresolved notions comprise “Choosing Sides”? The brilliance of, say, SMiLE, is that while it’s built on modular arrangements it also sparks cognitive enjoyment through repetition and recurrence. But Plumb comes like lightning. In spite of themselves, a few songs are written to completion anyway, and are pretty affecting, whether lyrically (social exclusion brought about by careless time management in “Sorry Again, Mate”) or musically (the gorgeously searing strings that fill “From Hide And Seek To Heartache” to bursting). I’m buying the next Field Music record because I believe, I believe, but I think they shoot themselves in the foot about a dozen times on Plumb.
GRIMES – Visions
I’ve read she digs Animal Collective and it shows on Visions, which is surprisingly organic for a record built on brief, recurring melodic phrases. Not that the loops are so deft you don’t realize what’s going on, but the burbling synth-plus-beats work is fresh and invigorating throughout. Although live performances occasionally veer into twee ether, she holds it together as a vocalist here too, despite a delivery that essentially kills at least half the words before they reach the mic. Thus, it’s not so much an impediment as an artistic statement. Allowing for the featherweight vocals, the heavy lifting’s left to the music, which is tight and clubby, sometimes hinting at late-’80s chart cheese (“Oblivion”), sometimes nodding at Eurodisco narcotism (“Be A Body”), sometimes evincing the queasy otherness Lynch, Badalamenti and Cruise might’ve dreamt up for Twin Peaks if its time had come 20 years later (“Symphonia IX [My Wait Is U]”). Mostly, though, Visions retains an elemental approachability despite its animated idiosyncrasies, which is the best of both worlds for Grimes. A little like good AnCo, genuine pop moments appear throughout, long enough for some listeners to connect the dots and possibly hear things that aren’t really there. Is that why it’s called Visions, Claire?
FRANKIE ROSE – Interstellar
A lovely – and sometimes dark – album that reminds me somewhat of last year’s Miracle Fortress set, both of ‘em sparkling recordings that forestall most knee-jerk retro tags despite their reliance upon cozily familiar instrumentation. Icy synths, syncopated drumbeats and chorused guitars abound, but their deployment’s what makes Interstellar glow. Frankie cushions her modest voice with close harmony double-tracking that occasionally suggests Dolores O’Riordan purring in neutral. It’s a pleasant sound that works wonders on the peppy “Daylight Sky,” which cleverly trades that vocal approach off and on with a similar close-harmony synth melody, or on “Pair Of Wings,” which bursts into M83-like Technicolor over its final minute. Interstellar’s songs won’t smack you over the head with the kind of tension-releasing middle eights that’d cost Smokey Robinson any sleepless nights: a few songs somehow reach the three-minute mark without any real resolution. But nervy tunes like “Night Swim” and “Moon In My Mind” are so dynamically solid you don’t notice unless you’re listening for it. A classy effort that’ll probably fly under the radar but oughtta reward every pair of ears it graces. And I’ll bet this sounds great under a starry September sky.