sound patrol 1-20-05
The master of two idioms
Guitars and computers have been cohabitating peacefully and profitably for years now. First there was New Order, then there was Radiohead, then there were a whole slew of Volkswagen ads: Like peanut butter and chocolate, Les Pauls and laptops are two great tastes that taste great together. If you're looking for an official sanction, look no further than our own government. First Twins Jenna and Barbara have endorsed the Postal Service (the band), as has the United States Postal Service, which recently dropped a lawsuit against the dreamy phenoms after finagling a few cross-promotional opportunities. Blip-pop indietronics are about as cutting-edge as a college girl in a Jetta, which doesn't make them obsolete, exactly, although it doesn't make them interesting either.
Fortunately, Styrofoam, an artist as light and versatile as his namesake, has more to offer than this not-so-novel novelty fusion. On Nothing's Lost, his third CD as Styrofoam, Belgian DJ/producer/singer/musician Arne van Petegem marshals hissy beats, sissy singing, glitchy samples, and blissed-out guitar hooks in the service of futurist pop -- not some crazy, scary, out-there future-future designed for IDM geeks but a practical, well-appointed future that assumes that tomorrow's people will want the same things today's people want: catchy melodies, memorable choruses, and a good beat you can dance to. Assisting Styrofoam in this endeavor are Markus Acher (the Notwist, Lali Puna), whose silvery, shoegazing guitar lines grace the CD's first and closing tracks; Ben Gibbard (Postal Service, Death Cab for Cutie), who sings and plays grand piano and guitar; and Andrew Kenny (American Analog Set), who handles lead-vocal duty on "Front to Back," the CD's bittersweet centerpiece. Acher's Lali Puna bandmate Valerie Trebeljahr and experimental rapper Alias, of Anticon, sing and rhyme, respectively, on the dystopian opener, "Misguided," and Das Pop's Bent van Looy and Japanese songbird Miki Yoshimura duet on the irresistible "Anything," which sounds like a coed Depeche Mode transplanted from the club to the bedroom. Even the tracks that Styrofoam performs solo are solid and engaging, the mark of an author who isn't just dabbling in the hot fusion du jour but using two idioms that he's already mastered.
You've got to be some kind of a jerk not to like Hem. Indebted to the gleaming orchestral contours of Nashville countrypolitan, pastoral chamber-pop, '70s soft rock, and shabby-chic folk, the Brooklyn-based octet specializes in gentle, tasteful, well-executed evocations of Americana. Like Linda Ronstadt, Karen Carpenter, and Jennifer Warnes, singer Sally Ellyson has a pitch-perfect but unremarkable voice, one that soothes rather than transports. The rest of the band is also unlikely to harsh anyone's mellow. Augmented by the Slovak Radio Orchestra, the members of Hem craft NPR-ready lullabies out of a decorous orgy of mandolins, banjos, pianos, woodwinds, and pedal-steel guitars.
Just as "evening" is a dolled-up word for "night," Eveningland, Hem's second full-length, is loveliness writ large, a vast expanse of vanilla taupeness, everything aestheticized to its maximum pretty power. Ellyson seems constitutionally incapable of expressing an ugly emotion, which is a good thing in a kindergarten teacher but deadly dull in a singer. Nothing in her clarion warble or in the songs, mostly penned by pianist/co-producer Dan MessÃ©, pierces the Vicodin haze. Like a model who's been airbrushed to anonymity, the perfection seems unreal, vaguely oppressive. True, the world would be a nicer place if Hem were playing in grocery stores and gynecologists' waiting rooms instead of the Eagles and Shawn Colvin. It's also true that dismissing a band because your mom might like it is a copout, a knee-jerk adolescent impulse that has no place outside a smeary fanzine. The fact, however, remains: Your mom would so totally love Hem.