Forget trying to pinpoint a pattern on Pattern Matching. The album, the second from Stranger in the Alps, is packed with so many shifts in mood, style, and tempo, that attempting to peel back the layers of each of its seven tracks can feel like a futile endeavor.
The solo project of Steve Kolowich, Stranger in the Alps has a sound that’s evolved from the breezy, introspective folk of his previous release, 2013’s Honey if You’re Lucky, to a rich mix of alt-country, electronic, and chamber pop. This marriage of mellow acoustic riffs and moody electronics was largely brokered by Pattern Matching’s producer, electronic artist Louis Weeks, whose solo material boasts the same blip-tinged warmth that permeates Stranger in the Alps’ arrangements. Weeks worked with Kolowich on Honey if You’re Lucky, too, but on Pattern Matching, the pair has clearly found its sonic groove. Here, Kolowich ditches his indie-folk comfort zone in favor of a new, radiant soundscape where guitars mix with hiccuping synths and full-bodied wurlitzer, only to be interrupted by a dreamy wash of woodwinds.
Pattern Matching kicks off with a robotic sample declaring, “Yes, this is it.” The computerized voice acts as a sonic permission slip, giving listeners the go-ahead to sit back and take in the somber vibe of the album’s opening track, “Lady Mondegreen.” The song’s fusion of acoustic guitar and slow-moving synths is blanketed by slinky pedal steel, creating a bleak tone that contrasts with the bright hues of the album’s cover art. This attention to atmosphere is part of what makes Pattern Matching so compelling. The album’s tracks are carefully arranged, both in texture and in lyrical content, to keep listeners guessing while communicating some pretty heavy themes. On “Lady Mondegreen,” Kolowich croons about crossword puzzles and coffee getting cold, innocuous but relatable references that prime listeners for his darker statements about the monotony of routine: “Draw an inkblot/Draw a blank/Fill an empty filing rank/Living day-to-day is getting old.”
Kolowich’s talented team of collaborators shaped Pattern Matching’s vivid scenes with whimsical instrumentation. Weeks shows up on every song, while D.C.’s Seán Barna and Travis Lyon (a D.C. expat in Ireland) contribute to most others. Throughout, the team bounces between divergent instruments—egg shakers! acoustic bass! synthesizers!—and styles. From the album’s title track, a dusty, guitar and wurlitzer-driven folk tune that brings to mind the sun-baked folk of Phosphorescent, to the woodwind-laced dreamscape of “Middle America,” Kolowich and company patch together a range of distinct but complementary genres, manufacturing the musical equivalent of a stained-glass window.
In recent interviews, Kolowich has noted that most of the album’s tracks were penned on airplanes. It shows, especially on “Black Box,” where Kolowich blends hushed strums with subtle electronics in a meditation on society’s 24/7 thirst for information—“Eat your breakfast/Mind your checklist/And your angle of attack”—and its correlation to the missing black box of Malaysia Airlines flight 370.
As Stranger in the Alps, Kolowich shines as both a thoughtful songwriter and a matchmaker of sorts, combining his detailed prose with its instrumental equivalent. The result is a seven-track trip into his psyche, which, with its fuzzy samples and twangy guitar, makes for a thrilling destination.
Stranger in the Alps plays the Black Cat Sunday, Feb. 8.
Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this review referred to Stranger in the Alps’ first album as Honey if You Will. It was Honey if You’re Lucky.