If I am to understand pop music at all, and it seems that as a critic I should make some effort to do so, it is a temporal bracket containing sonic art that offers transportation out of the current modern condition while managing tethers to it. Pop music will never tear down the walls, but when it works, it will compel you to make the fences buckle a little. A while back, I needed this prodding from pop music to convince me to kick against the pricks, but now that I was freed (re: fired) from those yokes of bondage, I decided to check in and see how some of my liberators were doing, and luckily, two of the main ones released records this week.
Architecture in Helsinki
Place Like This
About two years ago, before I dropped out of productive and profitable society, I remember sitting alone in my cubicle cranking away on a software project at 3AM, listening to AiH's last buoyant album In Case We Die like it was a rescue ship signaling from the horizon after just as I'd shot off my last rescue flare. I still dig out "It's Five" every once in a while when I need a pick me up, but as a whole, the album's over-happiness must have been balanced by my exaggerated misery, since it is a little too cartoon for me now.
Place Like This thankfully bears a little more edge, what I expect from Australians. Even at their goofiest new wave moments, Australians still always manage to sound a little rough and tumble. Methinks Modest Mouse must have reached their antipodean shores, since there is considerable more growling and menace here, which at the outset seemed like a bad idea. The first track "Red turned White" opening with the same beat as Def Lepperd's "Rock of Ages" gliding into some synth straight out of Shalimar, I thought they'd lost the trail. But as I let it play out, like through "Hold Music" and "Feather in a Baseball Cap" I discovered that they've morphed into a modern b-52's, a band that cases anxiety in pink party plastic.
And then, "Like it or Not" comes on. Remember the Swamp Zombies? No? Neither does iTunes, but the Swamp Zombies were the shit, mixing highlife guitar with calypso goofy new wave, and AiH got that boogie disease on this track. "Debby" is more like Beck meets The Human League meets David Byrne back when he was frustrated all the time. "Nothing's Wrong" - everything goes wrong, or right depending how in-the-moment you are, and by everything, I mean every old tape you had rolling around on the floorboards of your car. It is a little Yazoo, a little Cheap Trick and maybe a dash of Bauhaus - that kind of maddening salad.
Fortunately I no longer spend all night in an office tying to satisfy an employer that is about to fire me, so I don't require the level of mainline saccharine that they rocked in In Case We Die, but I'm not sure my steady emotional barometer is helped or hurt by this more balanced realistic take on their sound. It's still good stuff, and I'm thankful for the lifeline two years ago, but I'm swimming along fine now.
Now this new Caribou, on the other hand, is a welcome refinement on the David van Tieghem tin-pan ratchet bliss on last year's already exquisite The Milk of Human Kindness. Things are run through a tighter conduit, only serving to make a stronger stream when it emerges from the nozzle; "Melody Day" almost starts mid lyric it seems. The perfect secession of parts and pieces, little guitar lines, drum crashes, fluttery synth strings all plow through my ears like a bullet train. Dan Snaith is the man.
The swooning magma flow of pop genius continues to pour from his prodigious crater throughout the rest of the record. "After Hours" has circadian rhythms and swooning harmonies that positively hypnotize. The first real slow number "She's The One" is rife with counterpoints and pulses all around as he croons in a softened Vaseline gaze not seen since Prefab Sprout was an active concern. "Eli" starts with a strutty guitar line leading into some Kinks-stylee psychedelia which offers just the right pinch of danger and baroque mastery.
"Sundialing" is like Steve Reich in pop form, simple beats slowly evolving and changing while maintaining a static integrity. His vocoded, echoey vocals skate upon the thin ice that forms on the surface, and the butterfly outbursts that occur are breathtaking. Its one of those pop moments that I'd love to hear go on for hours, getting me drunk on its informal perfection until it suddenly finishes and I wake up, discovering myself sitting in a meadow far from my day-to-day, my laptop sitting abandoned next to my cell phone buzzing away on some caf?© table which serves as just a public version of the cubicle against which I railed in the past. I think I have things good, but I love that this sweet delirious record can show me I can still have it better.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com