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Architecture in Helsinki
Belle and Sebastian’s most lasting musical legacy hasn’t been the assertion of preciousness as a virtue. Or the alchemical integration of song and liner note. Or even the reintroduction of Felt into the alt-pop vocabulary. Rather, it’s the idea that very large ensembles can make very small sounds. Since the Glaswegian septet released it first recordings, in 1996, there’s been a good long run of outsized indie-pop outfits, from baker’s-dozen-or-so Toronto collective Broken Social Scene to Montreal’s seven-member the Arcade Fire to Melbourne, Australia, octet Architecture in Helsinki. On the last’s second and latest long-player, In Case We Die, the group’s eight sets of hands once again convene at the kitchen sink—though except for group choruses, you might never know you’re listening to more than a quartet. Lead vocalist/prime mover Cameron Bird professes love for the Beach Boys, the Magnetic Fields, and the Wu-Tang Clan alike, and if the new album doesn’t quite reflect all those influences, it at least makes a good case for the first two. With the exception of its vaguely funereal church-bell-and-chorale opening, In Case We Die indulges in plenty of sweet harmonies, off-kilter melodies, and odd, complex song structures that seem grander than they really are. Take twitchy lead-off track “Neverevereverdid”: After that dark opening, it becomes a foppish, show-tune-playful piano number before transmogrifying into a full-on shoutalong that’s equal parts Slits and Romper Room. The lyrics, meanwhile, suggest that not everything in Cameron & Co.’s world is as Crayola-bright as their music: “Just yesterday, was walking on the moon with your stalker/And we talked about love and all the battles we’d won,” go the first two lines. Similarly, the trumpet-and-guitar-driven “Frenchy, I’m Faking” not only features some of the album’s best lyrics in “You let me down lightly/I killed you politely” but also demonstrates that twee pop and dance-punk can coexist—and that they go together even better when someone fools around with what sounds like an electric drill in the background. Elsewhere, “The Cemetery” marries a skittery Casio beat to some Smiths jangle, “Wishbone” pairs shoop-shoop sockhoppery with the line “We’ll play dead,” and “Maybe You Can Owe Me” sends electronic currents dissolving in a postrock wash reminiscent of early Tortoise. There’s even a possible left-field dance hit in “Do the Whirlwind.” With each band member facing a potential 70 toes to step on, it’s remarkable that In Case We Die works at all. That it does proves Architecture in Helsinki’s mastery of the B&S secret: If there’s a strength in numbers, it’s that you don’t have to show them off. —Chris Hagan