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You know those record reviews in which the reviewer describes three examples of artists he can place in a new subgenre and then gives the new subgenre an easy-to-remember name, which, if it catches on, will have all three artists denying they have anything in common? I desperately tried to write one of those reviews. It was no use, though: The list on my desk had all sorts of ideas for what to call new albums by geeky, formerly guitar-hugging indie boys who’ve embraced electronic music, but they were all terrible. So we can just forget all about “indietronica,” “pencil-nechno,” andI was really reaching, here”unhiphop.”
But whether we need a moniker for this poindextrous pop, there has definitely been something afoot in the previously guitarcentric world of indie-rock dudes. Software has developed to the point that even a bass player can create graceful, arcing electronica with relative ease. An immediate consequence of this is that if your folk-, punk-, or rawk-rock band is no longer packing in the hipsters the way it used to, it isn’t a big deal to switch to a more up-to-date sound. Another is that collaborating with someone you met on toursay, someone who might live in another cityisn’t a big deal, either.
And with that we turn to former Kings of Convenience frontman and Bergen, Norway, native Erlend Oye. With his thick glasses, hopeless shock of curly red hair, and lanky frame, Oye looks more like an open-source-programming pioneer or a member of an acoustic-guitar-based gentle-pop duo than someone in the vanguard of pan-European sophistication. In fact, he is both of the last. A couple of years ago, the lilting, low-key folk-pop of the Kings’ sophomore LP, Quiet Is the New Loud, inexplicably became a favorite in chill-out rooms the world over. (Why hasn’t it happened for Things in Herds? Fate is unkind, that’s why). The band’s label quickly commissioned a pleasant remix record, Versus, and suddenly the mild Norwegians found themselves the toast of a music scene that’s long on sounds and short on songs.
So it’s no surprise that when his bandmate, Eirik Bøe, decided to finish his psychology studies in London, Oye leveraged a few of the new names in his Palm and put out a solo record. The new Unrest sees him traveling far afield from his current base in Berlin to collaborate with artists in New York, in Barcelona, and all over Scandinavia. Morgan Geist, owner of the New York techno label Environ, joins Oye on album-opener “Ghost Trains,” whose strict Detroit-style electro pops like ping-pong balls in a lotto machine as Oye coolly recounts a youthful love affair that took him to Naples and back in search of a “black-eyed stranger.”
Atlantan (and Barcelona resident) Prefuse 73 creates the glitchy backing for “Every Party Has a Winner and a Loser,” which opens with a knock, like a low-budget version of Wings’ “Let ‘Em In.” Then Oye jumps in to consider the politics of social occasions over hand claps and a little doo-wop: “Who’s stayin’ with whom?/
Who failed to show?/Who’ll leave alone?” Oye’s countryman Björn Torske joins him on “The Talk,” a minimalist house number in which the narrator chides himself, “Hey boy, you never finish what you started/Says the man I want to be who I am not.”
Sounds grim, eh? Norwegian, almost. It’s not. In fact, Unrest is a lot of fun, mostly because Oye’s songs are not 12-minute ambient explorations of psychic space but fully developed pop numbers with verses, bridges, and even choruses. It’s also because you wouldn’t know the album features so many chefs without reading the liner notes, so much does it sound like the work of one guy. Sure, Oye gets by with more than a little help from his friends: Finnish artist Kilogram finds the perfect herky-jerky beat to complement Oye’s dorky piano on “A While Ago and Recently,” for example, and German goofball Dirk Dresselhaus, who does business as sugary techno artist Schneider TM, adds spooky textures to album-closing “Like Gold.” But through it all are Oye’s deadpan voice and droll lyrics, extolling the virtues of quiet-guy strategies such as “jumping out of the game/By being a referee.”
In the case of Unrest, he definitely made the right call: Some folks seem to do their best thinking on planes, and Oye could have done a lot worse than put himself in the passenger seat with a ’round-the-world ticket.
If the Postal Service is a less globe-trotting collaboration, it’s a more cinematic one. As leader of Seattle emo-pop outfit Death Cab for Cutie, Benjamin Gibbard has always turned in songs with serious scope, such as 2001’s terrific “Styrofoam Plates,” written on the occasion of the death of a deadbeat dad. Gibbard recounts how Pop’s ashes blow back and sting his eyes as he throws them into the sea, causing him to reflect on Thanksgiving dinners in the basements of Catholic churches. “Charity reeks of cheap wine and pity,” he sings, “and I’m thinking of you.”
Nothing by Gibbard’s Postal Service project describes a situation that heart-rending, but musical partner Jimmy Tamborello, who served in the emo band Strictly Ballroom and now makes electronic records in L.A. under the names Dntel and Figurines, gives Gibbard’s soft vocals the kind of widescreen background that Death Cab for Cutie’s traditional rock backing never quite provided. The opening song on the new Give Up, “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” finds Gibbard, visitor’s name tag affixed to his chest, hat firmly in hand, dropping in on an ex who lives in “a gaudy apartment complex” somewhere in this area. “You seem so out of context,” he marvels, before adding that “I am finally seeing why I was the one worth leaving.” Tamborello pumps up the bass drum and string samples, Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis adds sweet backing vocals, and by God, we’re in business.
That track’s lyrical theme continues in “Nothing Better,” a “Don’t You Want Me” for a time of diminished expectations. You see, Gibbard’s character is getting dumped. As is often the case with men in these situations, he begins to howl in protest, suddenly considering commitment: “Tell me am I right that there could be nothing better/Than making you my bride and slowly growing old together?” She, played by singer Jen Wood, is having none of it. “I feel I must interject here,” she says, her presence announced by an orchestral maneuver Tamborello filched from an old ABC record. “I’ve made charts and graphs that should finally make it clear/I’ve prepared a lecture on why I have to leave.” She goes on to tell him he’s had his chance.
Throughout, Tamborello is a more than able accompanist, spicing his glitchy beats with big bass drums, bigger bass lines, and all manner of memorably noncheesy keyboards. On “We Will Become Silhouettes,” he even throws in a bit of accordion. He repeats the move for “This Place Is a Prison,” on which Gibbard describes a place where people are “inhaling thrills through $20 bills/And the tumblers are drained and then flooded again and again.” He seems to be talking about a Northwestern dive, but Tamborello gives the scene a distinctly SoCal feel, like a David Lynch scene set in a party at Joe Walsh’s mansion. Crisp drums loop, strings rise, Tamborello makes with the squeezebox again, and Gibbard wonders, “What does it take/To get a drink in this place?”
Album-closer “Natural Anthem,” however, is where Tamborello really cuts loose, and when Gibbard comes in near the four-minute mark, it seems as if his lyrics are supporting Tamborello’s music and not the other way around. Against an expansive drum ‘n’ bass backdrop, Gibbard imagines writing a song that will “rally all the workers on strike for better pay/And its chorus will resound and boost morale throughout the day.” A little later, he implores, “Please don’t get upset at this portrait that I paint/It may be a little biased, but at least I spelt your name right.” Then there’s an electronic zipper sound and…scene! If direction like that doesn’t inspire you to man the barricades, it’ll at least get your feet workin’ as much as your head. No need to put a name on that. CP
The Postal Service performs at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 15, at the Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 667-7960.