Posts tagged: synth pop

Phoenix – Bankrupt!

By , April 24, 2013 12:00 pm


Phoenix – Bankrupt!

V2 Records 2013

Rating: 8/10

It’s a deep, dark secret of mine that when I first heard “Lisztomania,” the initial single off 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, I hated it. Where was the pounding hook of “Consolation Prizes,” the fearless anything-goes mentality of United? Now, I’m not proud of this – in retrospect, I don’t even know how it was possible, so viscerally thrilling follow-up “1901” is and how immediate the album as a whole feels to me now. But I came around to it; we all did, really, as Wolfgang’s sales and Phoenix’s headlining turn at this month’s Coachella confirmed. That album was the perfect summation of their love for ‘80s glam and a knack for crafting airy hooks, lightweight as confectioner’s sugar and twice as sweet. Yet in the context of their career, it wasn’t all that much different from what had come before, despite my earliest misplaced misgivings. That’s why Bankrupt! is such an interesting record – for the first time in their careers, Phoenix have something to prove. They don’t shy away from their new billing as arena rockers, but their sound is as deliriously uncool as ever – “Entertainment” bursts out of the gate with a truly massive chorus, a wall of synths that looks at Wolfgang’s spartan in comparison production and laughs. But its oriental motif is chintzy and hilariously cheesy, and in Thomas Mars’ triumphant climax is just one double-edged wish: “I’d rather be alone.”

In that respect, Bankrupt! is a textbook dealing-with-success record. There’s a lot of pensive melancholy among Mars’ typically adroit verbal gymnastics, disguised by the searing brightness of the music but still found out easily enough for those willing to parse through his often-cryptic lyrics. This dichotomy works out well enough – Mars likes to poke fun at himself for “Trying To Be Cool,” but there’s nothing affected here. The hooks come hard and fast and appropriately stadium-sized, and Mars sounds equally at ease lamenting the cultural elite on “Bourgeois” as he does exhorting a lover to “follow, follow me” on “The Real Thing.” That latter track is a revelation in how Phoenix sees itself these days, a slow and deliberate anthem whose pounding chorus is awash in gated reverb and hits with all the intensity of a jet engine. Phoenix are still more than happy to get down, but “The Real Thing” is a song for waving your lighters in the air, for expansive fields and stirring up big, old, dumb human emotion. There is nothing here as instantly gratifying as that first buzzsaw synth of “1901,” but let’s be honest here: will there ever be? What Bankrupt! prefers to do, however, is further explore the sleaziest corners of the ‘80s and pile on the layers, not delicately but with wild, reckless abandon. Oh, and keyboards. Lots and lots of keyboards.

If it sometimes seems that Bankrupt! is bursting at the seams, it’s because it is. A song like album highlight “SOS in Bel Air” has no less than three different hooks running rampant through its breathless structure, while “Trying To Be Cool” pokes fun at itself and the band with a breezy, gleaming bit of ‘80s trifle that is decidedly uncool for 2013 – and that’s before the R&B breakdown that ends things without a hint of embarrassment. At times, the overwhelming amount of things going on may lead Phoenix to sound like it has written a check their songwriting chops can’t cash. “Don’t” bounces from deranged uptempo electro-pop to half-time chilled-out jam before abruptly switching back with a bizarrely disconnected synth riff, giving the track a disjointed, awkward feel. The chaotic, chirping beat that propels “Drakkar Noir” puts the focus squarely on the lyrics, which are laughably obtuse, even by Phoenix’s enigmatic standards; for Mars, it’s often a perilously thin line between saying a lot and saying nothing at all. The title track, meanwhile, continues the band’s theme of placing at least one semi-instrumental track drawn out to anti-pop lengths on each album, but whereas 2009’s “Love Like A Sunset” and It’s Never Been Like That’s “North” showcased a fascinating look at a side of the band not typically on display, “Bankrupt” never really goes anywhere, instead content to float around ambient keys and a muddy bass drone. It’s an odd blip on a record that otherwise refuses to pussyfoot around the candied hooks at the bottom of every track.

So, yes, there’s a goddamn pan-flute solo on the otherwise delightfully murky “Chloroform,” and if “Trying To Be Cool” didn’t serve as an obvious signpost, the fact that they recorded Bankrupt! on an old console used for Michael Jackson’s Thriller should make it clear that neon-rimmed bombast and thick, baroque pop is the order of the day here. On a pound-for-pound basis, the songs here take more than one intuitive listen to gnaw their way deep into your brainstem than did the readymade hits of Wolfgang or It’s Never Been Like That. They are heavier, and denser, and overwhelmingly less instant than their predecessors, as cloaked and finely adorned in all manner of bright, shiny synths as they are, at times almost crushed under the weight of an ambitiously flamboyant band. But these are still Phoenix songs, and by the end of a dozen listens they are as urgent as ever: that whip-crack drum entry on “Oblique City;” the coke-tinged VIP frenzy of “SOS in Bel Air;” the exhaustion that seeps into Mars’ voice on “Chloroform” married to that syrupy bass swell, the band on an inevitable club comedown. “Would I long for you? Is it up to you?” Mars asks on that last track, and by the end of Bankrupt! I feel the same way, the way I’ve felt each time I’ve fallen in love with a new Phoenix record no matter what my initial thoughts might have been – is it really up to me?

The deluxe CD which features a bonus disc that has in total 71 demos & sketches. The bonus disc is be a full hour of extras.
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Release date April 23, 2013.

Shout Out Louds – Optica

By , February 27, 2013 12:00 pm


Shout Out Louds – Optica

Merge Records 2013

Rating: 6/10

Our late, great Robin Smith called Our Ill Wills “a collection of songs that captured whatever they wanted to capture in their fleeting minutes,” an album “sung delicately and beautifully” and “a sugar hit even at its saddest,” and that’s about as compelling a summary of Shout Out Louds’ wistful, sunset-streaked romanticism as I could ever hope to muster. Smith called them cute and irrelevant, too, but mixed messages aside, Our Ill Wills was a highpoint for Swedish indie pop, for a genre and culture that dominated the blogosphere back when getting a song on an iPod commercial meant something. The craftsmanship and melodicism that made Shout Out Louds the Great Northern Hope has never really abandoned them, but the emotional nakedness that singer Adam Olenius used to drag us through the dirt with him appeared to be left out in the cold after “Hard Rain” ended with thunder in 2007. That’s a shame, too – their last effort, Work, was a pristine, efficient model of indie pop, sparkling in its harmonies and immediate in its hooks but with a production that was cold to the touch. It was the wrong kind of icy northern beauty.

Shout Out Louds’ core aesthetic has always been wrapping up the heartbreak and the grief and the nostalgia, all those pesky human frailties, around a wonderfully warm tapestry of bright, impeccably produced pop. It helps that Olenius yips like the Swedish Robert Smith, but the weight of the world – or the weight of the collective critical shrug that greeted Work – has had its effect. That spirited yelp is more controlled and conversational, a happy voice only on its face but still game; the lilting, Shins-y “Sugar” and the measured disco-rock of “Illusions” start Optica off on the right clog. Even when Olenius is little more than a withdrawn mumble on “Glasgow,” the band’s golden ear for production pays off, bringing in the lovely Bebban Stenborg for some backing vocals that shoots the melancholia through with a vibrant bit of whimsy. Despite doubling down on an electronic sound that pays homage to New Order and washed-out ‘80s dance, Optica feels more lived-in than its uber-professional predecessor, earnest and inviting despite the voluminous, cold soundscapes it inhabits. Glacial first single “Blue Ice” has no right to sound as interesting as it is – a warmed over midtempo ballad, one of many that swoon along to expansive synths and indulge in lyrics cribbed from your high school’s worst closeted romantic – but that lush production is a cosmic joy, painted in the same glorious Technicolor swathes the band’s video for it evokes.

The choruses are huge, the production immaculate, the vocal performances an adequately torn mix of regret and heartbreak and sugary climaxes, yet Optica never really latches on in any meaningful way. The closest it comes is when dissonance threatens to break through and rip that carefully woven tapestry just a little. Stenborg’s brisk turn on the creepy “Hermila,” the hot-blooded “14th of July,” and the antagonistic guitar squawks and discordant synths that twist through closer “Destroy” like the ghost in the machine all stand out mainly because they demand the facade let its guard down for a second, to let those emotional cracks reveal themselves in more than just the lyrics. It’s a paradoxical situation for Shout Out Louds – the better they’ve gotten at refining their craft, at writing the perfect chorus and combining them seamlessly with organic, vivid sonics, the further away they’ve gotten from the wounded empathy that drove their earlier records. At least ice burns. Optica too often feels like nothing at all.

Shout Out Louds took their time with these songs, recording for about 1.5 years in a small Stockholm studio and producing themselves for the first time with help from Johannes Berglund. A theme emerged and Optica was born, an album celebrating color and light from a band confident in its sound.
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Future of What – Back to the City

By , July 10, 2012 10:00 am

Led by wispy vocalist Blair Gimma (whose had her own share of solo success in the past), Brooklyn buzz band Future of What’s Facebook page defiantly throws aside the “electro-pop” moniker, claiming that they write “songs with a capital S.” I’m not sure when electro-pop became a genre tag to be avoided like the plague, but if “Back to the City” definitely fits within the parameters. Of course, this isn’t a bad thing; Gimma’s voice adds an airy dimension to the stark synths and gentle, space-age chord changes, and it seems like the band environment has worked well for Gimma. The group’s debut EP, Moonstruck, is available for free on their Bandcamp.

Future of What – “Back to the City”

Chromatics – The Page

By , April 12, 2012 10:00 am

Fresh off his success with the Drive soundtrack, producer Johnny Jewel recently released the Chromatics fourth studio album (proper U.S. release coming in May) on distinctive label Italians Do It Better, and Kill for Love maintains that nostalgic, ’80s vibe that dominated Drive and takes it to a new, M83-esque level (17 tracks that run for well over an hour). It’s a pretty incredible recreation of a certain time and sound, and similar to M83 last year, it reveres the past but creates something undeniably new and fresh with it. If you liked Drive or Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming or anything that comes out of Jewel’s mixing board, this is a must-have for 2012.

Chromatics – “The Page”

Geographer – Lover’s Game

By , March 8, 2012 10:00 am

Geographer fits in quite nicely with your synth-oriented indie outfits – your Starfucker, your Discovery – but the rub isn’t in the electronics or spot-on melodies, but rather in Michael Deni’s voice, which could more fittingly be likened to that of an angel (or Ra Ra Riot’s Wes Miles, if we’re going by earthly comparisons). It’s his soaring alto that directs everything with soulful ease, but it’s also Nathan Blaz’s electric cello and the careful layering of electronic effects, filters and reverbs and loops stacked precariously on top of each other, that make Geographer more than just your average electro band. Their second LP, Myth, came out on Modern Art at the end of February – “Lover’s Game” is a sunny standout in typically triumphant Geographer fashion. I also happened to see them live this past Sunday and heartily recommend catching them in your town if you can – they sound even better live.

Geographer – “Lover’s Game”

Geographer started with the courageous decision to turn negative circumstances into positive ambitions. In 2008, Mike was escaping strife within his family, & found himself picking up an abandoned synthesizer off the street in San Francisco. He began to reinvent himself through music, and simultaneously met Nathan & Brian, which led to the formation of Geographer. After releasing their highly acclaimed LP Innocent Ghost& EP Animal Shapes, Geographer teamed up with producer Eli Crews (tUnE yArDs, Beulah) & mixer Chris Zane (Passion Pit, Walkmen) to scrupulously craft the 2012 record Myth.
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