I love synthesizers.
I grew up in the ‘80s, so I appreciate the sound of synthesizers, when used well. I’m the guy who spent at least part of high school listening to Yanni and thinking he was pretty great. (His old stuff is much better than his later material. Yes, I am critically assessing the career of Yanni.) I wasn’t all that interested in Van Halen before “Jump.” I loved the Pet Shop Boys and the Art of Noise and anything with big, blocky keyboard chords. And don’t even get me started on “The Final Countdown,” which was actually considered awesome before Arrested Development got ahold of it.
I play keys, too, and have spent an awfully large percentage of my free time shaping new synth sounds and composing massive electronic music pieces, none of which really deserve to see the light of day. My first keyboard was a Casio SK-200, with tiny keys and an on-board sampler so I could loop my own voice. (Badly.) I made several instrumental albums full of goopy keyboards, and then in my twenties made many, many more, filling hours of tape with sloppily programmed beats and sloppily played keyboard leads right out of bad prog.
The point is, I love them. So it’s never struck me as odd for a rock band (or any band, really) to use them. Incorporating synths has become a bit of a cliché, something bands do when they need new ideas, but to me it’s always sounded natural. For instance, I barely even noticed that the new Spoon album, Hot Thoughts, makes much more use of keys than prior albums by the band. Only by putting this record next to older, more piano-driven ones like Girls Can Tell and Kill the Moonlight did I register just how far they’ve evolved.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise – Hot Thoughts was produced by Dave Fridmann, longtime sound-shaper for the Flaming Lips, who guided OK Go, to name one, through a similar transformation recently. Fridmann loves his synthesizers, and loves that woozy, not-quite-distinct sound he creates. (He tends to overdrive the drums and vocals, and blur everything else.) Hot Thoughts sounds like you’d expect Spoon to sound when filtered through Fridmann’s prism, complete with an increased fascination with synth sounds.
But at its heart, it’s still a Spoon album. Britt Daniel still sports one of the best vocal swaggers since Jagger, and his songs are clap-along gallops. Only a couple tracks here – the six-minute shiver “Pink Up” and the closing saxophone-laden instrumental “Us” – sound like true experiments with form, and feel like Fridmann taking the wheel. The other eight tracks retain that essential Spoon feeling – just check out the slinky groove of “Can I Sit Next to You,” or the welcome return of the piano pounding in the slow burn “Tear it Down.” (And the bass line of “Shotgun” should have its own record deal.)
Hot Thoughts is a subtle enough transformation that it barely registers as one. Spoon makes judicious use of synthesizers, but incorporates them into their own template. They’re enhancements, not replacements for core elements of their sound. More interesting to me is when artists formerly known for guitars or other more organic instruments take the deep dive into cold electronics. That’s when you see how much of their humanity and warmth comes through.
David Bazan is an excellent example. The former Pedro the Lion frontman made his name by playing shambling guitar-driven indie rock, and his first solo albums stuck to that sound, with some electronic embellishments. But with Blanco, his third, he dove in, and his fourth, Care, continues that exploration. There aren’t any organic instruments on Care, as far as I can tell – it’s all computer beats and blipping synth sounds. “Disappearing Ink,” one of two previously released songs here, sounds like a dispatch from 1982, but it works. Bazan’s hangdog voice and melodies complement this instrumentation very well.
And like Spoon, Bazan hasn’t changed what he does, at its core. His songs are still Bazan songs – dark and memorable, filled with turns of phrase that are like twists of a knife. Care is one of his most optimistic, lyrically speaking – it’s full of love songs, albeit realistic ones. “Inner Lives” captures a domestic scene between two people not quite connecting: “Without a word you made coffee for us both, without thinking I sat down and made a joke, the way you laughed at me threw off a little spark, in an instant I remembered who we are…”
“Keep Trying” contains a rare (for Bazan) shaft of light, a sweet tableau (“Isn’t there something that we both like to do? That’s not what I was thinking, but as long as it’s with you…”) in which he admits that “sometimes love isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be,” but, he repeats, you “keep trying.” On “Make Music” he uses a band as a metaphor for a relationship, and brings that to its full flower on the closer, “The Ballad of Pedro y Blanco,” a beautiful series of letters from one partner to another through their lives. “Dreamin’ on in a hospital bed, I’m holding her hand and kissing her head, kids and grandkids in unison howl, ‘Put down your guitar, go enjoy her right now…’”
Care is another terrific Bazan album, and proof that this transformation into a homespun electronic artist suits what he does very well. The key to its success, though, is that Bazan truly hasn’t changed – the trappings are different, but the songs and sentiments are pure David Bazan, and if he were to play these tunes on guitar, they would sound like his older work.
No, if you want someone who has made a complete transformation, you need to look at Anohni. She was once Antony Hegarty, who sung torch songs and orchestral numbers with a haunting, unforgettable voice. That voice is the only thing connecting her work as Anohni to her past. With last year’s album Hopelessness, she emerged as a powerful electronic artist, and her new EP Paradise continues along that path. In fact, although it is only six songs and 22 minutes, Paradise is a stronger and more complete statement, I think, thanks in part to noisy production by Oneohtrix Point Never.
I remain amazed at how well Anohni’s utterly unique voice works in this setting. Jumping from strings to rapid-fire electronic drums and glittering synthesizers is like time travel for her, and on Paradise, she sounds energized, alive, angry, standing on mountaintops and harnessing lightning. Several of these songs explode into noise, and the darkness of the sound is tangible. “Jesus Will Kill You” is perhaps the darkest, a sustained torrent of rage aimed at our leaders. “Burning people, burning hope, burning planet, all for your wealth, your wealth is predicated on the poverty of others, others must be poor if you’re to be rich…”
“You Are My Enemy” is surprisingly gentle, Anohni’s astounding voice rising above the subtle organ sounds as she sings about being ready to “cast from this world.” The glorious harmonies in the chorus belie the rancor in the lyrics. “Ricochet” is a song about reincarnation – specifically, about how Anohni doesn’t want to be reincarnated, and will be mightily pissed if she is. Final track “She Doesn’t Mourn her Loss” is an ode to her mother, and one of the saddest and prettiest things she’s ever given us. “She fed me all those years, and now she’s dry as her tears, and I’m asking, ‘Who will remember her if not her children?’”
Anohni’s cocoon-like transformation is so complete that she almost sounds like a completely different artist. This isn’t just a matter of adding synthesizers and tweaking her songwriting. This is a change of artistic outlook, a totally new skin, and it shines. Hopelessness and Paradise are the best work I’ve heard from her, and no matter how sad and dark this material gets, I can’t help but think that she sounds reborn through it.
Of course, while all these kids are finding keytars in their parents’ closets, the boys in Depeche Mode are sitting back and laughing. They’re early adopters of this sound, and are celebrating 37 years together with a new album called Spirit. And it sounds like Depeche Mode, through and through. Slow crawlers built on thumping drums and pulsing keyboard thrums, Dave Gahan’s deep voice (which also hasn’t changed a lick in nearly four decades), songs about liars and false religions and standing up for truth.
In short, it’s a Depeche Mode album, and in a column entirely about reinvention, they’re the counter-argument for consistency. Is it a strong argument? Well, it’s a strong album, though it doesn’t distinguish itself from the last one (or two, or…). I do find it ironic that the second track is called “Where’s the Revolution” (a plea for social change), and it sounds like every Depeche Mode song in recent memory.
Still, I quite like this record, and Depeche Mode in general, if for no other reason than as ongoing inspiration for the younger artists discovering how effective synths can be. But if you want a real revolution, look toward the likes of Bazan and Anohni, ripping up their own rulebooks and blazing new paths.
That’ll do it for this week. Next week, the Magnetic Fields trace fifty years in fifty songs. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.