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Passion Pit — Gossamer

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Open wide, kids! Here comes another dose of glossy sugar-coated despair from sonic sensations Passion Pit!

Brooklyn transplants and Pitchfork darlings Passion Pit burst onto the scene just over three years ago with their special brand of intelligent yet saccharine electro-dance pop. Their signature sound is defined by layered vocals, twee little samples, avalanches of shiny treble-riffic effects, convulsive rhythms, and incongruently dark lyrics that brilliantly capture all the tortured angst of singer/mastermind Michael Angelakos in a bright, shiny package. Angelakos’s wide-eyed falsetto is the icing on the Passion Pit cake, and that, along with his very public struggles with bipolar disorder (including a handful of cancelled dates on the current U.S. tour), have made him something of a poster child for legions of disaffected youth who just wanna dance it out. Let’s just say that he is to self-harming hipster girls what Justin Bieber is to the giggling pubescent set.

The band got its beginnings, as the mythology goes, when Angelakos put together four tracks by himself as a late Valentine’s Day gift for his then-girlfriend. The songs went viral and soon Angelakos was playing shows around the Boston area and getting lots of unexpected attention from indie tastemakers. Eventually he formed a proper band with four students from the Berklee College of Music. (I won’t bother mentioning their names here because, as countless other articles and interviews suggest, they don’t seem to be much more than window dressing for the live-show version of the hyper-self-aware soundtrack Angelakos has crafted to score his inner struggles.)

Gossamer is Passion Pit’s sophomore effort and is two years in the making. It’s the long-awaited follow-up to their debut full-length album, 2009’s breakthrough Manners, which features the pleasantly inoffensive smash hit “Sleepyhead”–a song so ubiquitous I swear I heard the geriatric cashier at Publix humming it the other day.

Passion Pit is still fundamentally the same act serving up more of what they’re best known for. However, aside from an insignificant lineup change, there are a few things that stand out as different about Gossamer. While Passion Pit decided to stick with the same producer, Chris Zane, they’ve made that tenuous (and often doomed) transition between an indie label (Frenchkiss) and an industry behemoth (Columbia). It’s not clear if this shift had a significant effect on the cohesion of the new album, but the whole thing plays out like a stack of unfinished sketches or a rudderless ship being tossed around on a rough sea.

Gossamer has more of an experimental feel and less of the dancey pop anthems and vaguely Eastern melodies we came to expect from Manners. The new album also grates on the nerves noticeably more than the last. While Manners was plenty noisy, it still had lots of catchy melodies and an upbeat anthemic quality that moved it forward. Gossamer, on the other hand, is crammed so full of samples, looped snippits, effects, static, and layering that the actual music gets lost in it all. It’s like listening to a great song on the radio, only you’ve got terrible reception and are only hearing bits and pieces. There’s absolutely nothing technically wrong with the music–like free jazz, it’s actually brilliant if you can get past all the cacophony. And there’s always that undercurrent of pop sensibilities, which at least keeps the songs somewhat accessible. But aside from a few bright spots and glimmers of hope, Gossamer vacillates between being unbearably shrill and so choppy and distorted that you’re left wondering if something’s wrong with your speakers.

Here’s my notes on the tracks:

  1. “Take a Walk” — This is the first single I feel like we’ve heard this melody before. The determined beat marches on like a stoic walk on the beach, only the kind you do at dawn on a windy, overcast, totally miserable day when there’s no one around to get in your way.
  2. “I’ll Be Alright” — Sounds like a spontaneous disco in a miniature robot factory, where all the tiny mechanical beings suddenly come to life and spazz out with joy. Cut-up percussion snippits topped with shiny, sizzly synth overlays have me feeling a bit ADD after awhile. In fact, I think my ears are having a seizure. But it sorta works.
  3. “Carried Away” — Here we’re served a catchy tune dipped in a sugar-coated sound with lots of retro-tinged synth, eerie synchronized female backup vocals, and a cheerful, bouncy singalong chorus. This one definitely sounds the most like Manners-era Passion Pit.
  4. “Constant Conversations” — I don’t know whether to laugh or shake my head. This bizarre undertaking conjures up visions of a nerdy hipster gettin’ all nasty and ironic with GarageBand as he sings inappropriately over butchered samples of a Stylistics single. There’s something slightly endearing about it, though.
  5. “Mirrored Sea” — A glittery metallic onslaught at the beginning leads us into a stuttering beat cloyingly frosted with a sugary chorus of robotic angels. The jacked-up tinny drum machine makes repeat encore appearances in the song. I’m getting skeptical at how repetitive it’s getting, but the badass vocoder chant at the bridge instantly wins me over and my faith is restored! This is what android heaven sounds like.
  6. “Cry Like a Ghost” — The ear-splitting synth and miniature diva hook at the beginning of this are so high-pitched, I swear I hear the dogs upstairs going nuts. Zippery bass starts us off right, and periodic nods to a dental drill and some slobbering sucking noises at the outro convince me that this song would provide great comfort to me if listened to during a root canal.
  7. “On My Way” — This track starts out almost like a normal piano-chord-driven ballad. Well, well, well–what kind of wild-ass ride are we in for now? Ringing bells, pirouetting synth, and a triumphant-as-hell chorus lend a festive yet childlike air to this song. This is the mental soundtrack I’d have if strolling through the gleaming, fun-filled aisles of FAO Schwarz. Sucking on nitrous.
  8. “Hideaway” — This one starts with a stuttering echoey nostalgic sound, like you can’t quite tune to the right radio station in your memory. But then it veers unexpectedly off course into a formulaic pop song buried in layers of fuzz, static, effects, and relentless percussion. It all becomes too much to bear, kind of like being at your high school prom again, forced to endure the painful spectacle of insecure hormone-besotted youngsters playing at being adults while you gulp down spiked punch and plot your escape.
  9. “Two Veils to Hide My Face” — Oh gurl, no. This painful chorus of cavity-inducing harmony plays like a rejected outtake from Glee. Thankfully it’s over in 33 seconds.
  10. “Love is Greed” — Apparently we’re back to skipping through through FAO Schwarz again, only this time we’re the Pied Piper, and we’ve got oodles of precious little windup toys in tow. A steady midtempo beat, cutesy melodies, and uplifting vocals (despite the appallingly depressing lyrics) make this ironically gleeful flight of fancy the perfect candidate for the theme song to the next heartwarming Pixar blockbuster (only it has to be one where the hero dies at the end).
  11. “It’s Not My Fault, I’m Happy” — Even without hearing the song, the blatant comma abuse in the title has already got me doubting the merits of this one. But I’m immediately won over by the adorable little robotic vocal hook that starts things off. The icy synth and determined pounding beat are for some reason giving me visions of row after row of rosy-cheeked elves hammering away merrily in Santa’s workshop, with an army of toys dancing and singing in the winter wonderland outside. (Another candidate for Pixar’s next Christmas special, perhaps?) I feel like I’m mainlining Christmas cheer, and sure enough, I’m (literally) nodding off by the end of the song.
  12. “Where We Belong” — The jingly chimes-laden intro immediately pulls me into a glittery, snow-covered panorama with Michael Angelakos standing in the middle, alone, with his arms extended, kitted out with a fashionable scarf and soulful eyes. The irregular soft thudding beat and weepy chorus of synthesized violins combine with his plaintive warbling to yield one big angst-wallowing arrythmial party. Happily, this gratuitous aural self-harm crescendos into a victorious ending. Random spastic, choppy samples get thrown in here and there for the hell of it–because, hey, this is Passion Pit, and that’s just how they roll.

All things considered, not a bad effort…but not as good as we might’ve hoped. I wouldn’t call it a let-down or disappointment, but there’s the creeping feeling that we could very well be hearing B-sides and outtakes from the last album, along with a few half-developed ideas that somehow got shoehorned into songs. And despite the sugar-coated sound, the dark subject matter makes the music’s feigned exuberance feel especially hollow. Angelakos’s depressing lyrics are impossible to ignore this time around, even though there are admittedly still some pretty catchy pop songs on this album. While Manners might have been the ideal soundtrack to a night out with friends, Gossamer is something you listen to after the club closes down and you’re shuffling down deserted trash-littered streets alone, reexamining your life while you wait for the train.

Passion Pit’s Gossamer comes out on Columbia Records on Tuesday, July 24, 2012.

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Transistor-on Takes “The Way Back Down” on EP

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Transistor-on calls their goods “fuzzed out reverb music,” and in the spirit of post-rock, EP The Way Back Down is full of that melodious texture and sensation. Recorded at The Cottage with Damon Moon, The Way Back Down is a mere four tracks. But those songs make a satisfying sampling of a band with a big future ahead.

Atlanta duo Joey Piersante and Chris Armistead offer up a hazy fugue state that is the blueprint for this coming summer, showing that they can run with the best of the lo-fi crowd with their unique rhythms and finger-picking. The minimalist use of instruments that whip up the dream poppy wall of sound succeeds in taking the listener in a layered, chill journey.

Tracks like “Calling Out” and “Solar Flare” are so catchy (the former with its title refrain; the latter with its main guitar melody), that they etch onto your brain and trick you into thinking these are songs that have been around for maybe 20 years or so already.

Reviewers are throwing out comparisons—and they’ll continue to—of Transistor-on to Explosions in the Sky. The similarities are there for sure; both bands share a genre, after all. But saying only “they remind me of Explosions in the Sky” overlooks the fact that Transistor-on are stepping out in earnest on this EP, sounding comfortable in their skin without being jaded. Plus, having smoky vocals on the tracks adds to the spacey miasma and mystery that serves as the overarching feel of the record. The singing on “Empty Planet,” for example, highlights the track’s slow burn into its rocking guitar-driven crescendo.

Though the last piece on The Way Back Down is called “Exit,” by no means is that a harbinger of the band’s future. Transistor-on closes with a sure-footed tapestry of distortion and crisp rhythm, wrapping up a consistent and skillful release that definitely marks their arrival.

The Way Back Down is available to stream on SoundCloud or for purchase on iTunes. The gorgeous photo cover by Richard Casteel.

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Emily Hearn Saves Time in a Bottle on “Hourglass”

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Emily Hearn’s sonic journey on Hourglass shows that she is a woman coming into her own, figuring out the knots of past heartache, the bliss of newlywed life, and the passage of time.

Time acts as the overarching narrative on the record; Hourglass spans the two years following the Athens, GA native’s debut Red Balloon and 2013 EP Promises. “We fall in or out of love as time moves us,” she explains. “We learn life-changing lessons as time goes on. We figure out how to handle important relationships as time shapes us. We decide who we want to be and what we believe as time reveals our priorities. And ultimately, we grow older as time goes by.”

Hearn sings wistfully “Oh, to be young, and to have time” on the third track “Oak Tree,” longing for the naïve feeling that time would never move forward, or at least not so fast. She frets over seeing her parents age so quickly. The existential worries of a twenty-something come delivered in a package of a catchy, infectious chorus and clap-along-able melody.

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