Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Passion Pit

The single June post of this recently sparsely populated blog offered a long-winded exploration of my thoughts on electronic music via the electronica-rock synthesis act, Metric (NMT). It will be helpful to have that understanding in mind when considering this week's profilee, Passion Pit and their second full-length release, Gossamer (which like last week's review of The Gaslight Anthem's Handwritten (NMT), also was released on July 24th, but here on the Columbia Records label).

More than just a single DJ – or even a pair – claiming to be a larger musical act, this Cambridge, Mass., quintet is truly a band that happens to perform electronic-dominated music. While Buffalo-born and raised frontman Michael Angelakos (who, incidentally attended middle school with your blogger's brother) is the outfit's primary source of material, his colleagues contribute to a broader execution of that sound in live settings – often including actual musical instruments such as guitar, bass and drums instead of the straight electronic programming relied on so extensively in the genre.

To that end, the dozen-track collection's opener and leadoff single, "Take a Walk" is everything that most electronica output usually is not: tightly structured, immediately accessible and narrative. Following a brief and dreamy opening sequence, the thumping number plows ahead with strident rhythm from drummer Nate Donmoyer and bassist Jeff Apruzzese, identifiable riffs from guitarist Ian Hultquist and linear keyboard and synthesizer paths from Angelakos and Xander Singh. On top of this well-balanced construction, Angelakos relays the tale of a new immigrant in the America of the Great Recession. What, if any, political message Angelakos is trying to convey here is uncertain, but the tone is certainly timely with lines such as, "but then my partner called to say the pension funds were gone / He made some bad investments, now the accounts are overdrawn."

Gone from the band's approach after its 2008 EP, Chunk of Change, and its breakout 2009 full-length debut, Manners, is Angelakos' reliance on stratospheric falsetto vocals, replacing them here with his natural, albeit still high tenor range. The shift is apparent on "Take A Walk," as well as its frenetic follow-up, "I'll Be Alright." Seemingly a direct reference to his ongoing struggles with bipolar disorder and suicide attempts, the number's pesky, high-pitch samples and ongoing sonic chaos suggests a personality in perpetual conflict.

The concerning struggle that unfolds on "I'll Be Alright" is supplanted by the jubilant "Carried Away." Punchy and staccatoed verses buoyed by pre-programmed beats are swept away by the effervescent sing-along chorus, all the while belling its role as an extended apology for emotional turmoil, perhaps in a self-referential sense. Here, and elsewhere throughout the record, Angelakos' vocals are bolstered by the contributions of the Swedish vocal trio, Erato – whose cottage cheese container-backed covers of pop hits made them a YouTube sensation. Whether their inclusion was influenced by Angelakos or arranged by producer Chris Zane – who helmed the group's previous recordings – its a smart move to balance out Angelakos' presence over the collection. The number finds a complementary bookend later on in the form of the equally perky and belting chorus of "Hideaway," once it takes its leave of its unproductive minute-long intro.

Another new twist from previous efforts is Angelakos' take on blue-eyed soul on "Constant Conversations." The song's slower pace and R&B accompaniments is a stark contrast from the breezy romps of most of the group's material. But the stomping roots of techno come flaring back on "Mirrored Sea," with its heavily-electronic verses and waves of falsetto choruses from Angelakos across the sonic transom. It's a little blippy in the verses for my taste, but the hefty chorus largely compensate for the sparseness elsewhere, especially the redundant and uninteresting bridge part.

The pairing of the mid-record devotionals – to Silvia ("Cry Like a Ghost") and Christina ("On My Way") sets back the collection's tempo without much pizazz or passion, although the latter's chorus isn't a bad use of a hook, with bright organ underpinnings and an escalating beat. Even less compelling is the closer, "Where We Belong," who's lazy programming and mundane tone is the type of setting least conducive to Angelakos' approach.

But, fortunately, the combination of the brief, a-capella "Two Veils to Hide My Face" and the majestic fanfare of "Love Is Greed" are among the most adventurous the album has to offer. There seems to be much more waiting in the wings in the former that never gets its turn on stage in its short 34 seconds, and the Angelakos-Eroto grouping once again is a stellar match. And the bouncy and intricate intro of the latter obediently prances in the background after the numbers pulsing beat finds its way to the forefront, recalling the record's opener in the process.

Come for: "Take A Walk"
Stay for: Carried Away"
You'll be surprised by: "Two Veils to Hide My Face" / "Love Is Greed"

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