Noteworthy music releases this Tues.: skip Passion Pit, check out the Antlers

July 24, 2012

Today marks the release of a pair of thoroughly modern pieces of popular music for the cool kids. Passion Pit’s second album, the much-hyped Gossamer, arrives following years of anticipation. Then there’s the Antlers’ little 4-track EP, “Undersea.” Both bands were once labelmates on Frenchkiss Records but have since taken decidedly different paths at different labels. Passion Pit has gone to release stuff on Columbia Records, one of the larger major labels still in business. Meanwhile, the Antlers’ new release comes via Anti- Records, their new label. One release could be called sweet but superficial while another is simply sublime.

Gossamer (Support Independent Ethos, purchase the vinyl on Amazon) reeks of preciousness defined by the high-pitched, soaring singing of founder and mastermind Michael Angelakos. It gets old and annoying fast, so there are variations to the vocals throughout, including real female voices and samples. The music is all parsed out beats and bare melodies mostly generated by dinky moments of synthesized squeaks, howls and dings. It’s all bombastic cuteness that wears out with each fade out. Who still puts on the Wannadies’ once smash, self-titled debut for a full listen nowadays? There’s a reason you can find the CD version for a penny on Amazon 15 years later, despite it being out of print. Gossamer will likely end up in the same position in about the same time.

The album opens with the already familiar “Take a Walk.” With its jaunty synth and pounding beat it probably makes for one of the more accessible moments on Gossamer. It gets a bit more nerve-wracking when instruments seem to take split second turns to create the opening for the sample-montage “I’ll Be Alright.” Stings of synth strings, pounding drums and cooing vocals pop up and disappear in bursts that flicker and alternate during a song that crescendos as more layers pile up while Angelakos sings: “Can you remember ever having any thoughts?/Coz when it’s all said and done/I always believe we were … but I’m not so sure.” The flighty nostalgia gives way to an even more saccharine tune. Defined by a cooing synth under a thumping beat that could have been at home on a Debbie Gibson record in the mid-eighties, “Carried Away” sees Angelakos singing a chorus that might as well be “tra-la-la,” which features teen angst lyrics like: “Sorry ’bout things that I’ve said/Or is that again to my will?”

If you can withstand the cuteness further, the album has slower, more soulful moments like “Constant Conversations” and “Cry Like a Ghost.” But by then the vocals, accompanied by the soaring synths over and over grow tiresome.

The music’s light, effervescent quality makes it difficult to give it full attention from start to finish, much less repeated listens. Gossamer arrives on a wave of hype sure to have massive appeal. Like typical sugary treats, consumers might find themselves getting sick of it quick, however. At 12 tracks, it makes for a brief release, but the vinyl version has been spread across two slabs wax on 45 rpm for quality sound. However, as the music is so electronic-reliant, the analog format seems immaterial to the quality of the music. Besides, it’s quite a demand to ask listeners to flip through four sides of such a redundant record. A single vinyl LP would have worked fine. The vinyl also comes with a CD version of the album, so that means only one side to put up with.

Meanwhile, the Antlers further mellow out with its new “Undersea” EP (Support Independent Ethos, purchase the vinyl on Amazon), and the results are gorgeous. The trio from New York layer on the melodies with patience, creating an entrancing quality that lives up to the EP’s title. The music sounds buoyant and weightless. Guitars echo on languid strums and muted horns play melancholy melodies as the band’s frontman Peter Silberman sighs out his vocals that seem immersed in the soothing swells of the music. His vocals are so buried and languid, the words are difficult to make out. No matter, as the record works best as an abstract, impressionist thing that celebrates an immersive experience.

With this four-track EP, the Antlers have created something sublimely ethereal. It opens with “Drift Dive” fading in, sounding like Brian Eno’s “Deep Blue Day,” off his space-ambient masterpiece Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks. Guitars echo and wane. With the flourish of a harp, a spare, melancholy horn appears, slowly falling down a minor key run. Every stroke from the strings to the horns have a genuine, organic variable quality but appear to complement one another rhythmically. It’s a genuine entrancing moment produced in a manner that only real instruments can create. It’s the chaos and symmetry of nature not unlike the ripples in a pool.

The next song, “Endless Ladder,” opens with some soft feedback and soon flows into the beautiful echo of guitars, similar to Storm In Heaven-era Verve. At just over eight minutes long, the song takes its time. Each refrain of the melody during the first two minutes plays with textures of subtle instrumentation. It builds on cooing voices and the whir of a synthesizer. Trickling guitars repeat and reemerge in a pattern not dissimilar to the opener. The song is all entrancing repetition even with Silberman’s voice, which appears at the two-minute mark. He sings hushedly, as if not to disturb the surface of the music.

The second side opens with “Crest.” Featuring an echoing electronic pulse and click track, it feels like the least organic of the songs. The repetition of a whining, muted horn sounds like its part of a loop and Silberman offers vocal accompaniment sooner than in the earlier tracks. There are spare pauses allowing for the quiet strum of a guitar, but it’s the briefest track of the EP and its least calmly built moment. Finally, “Zelda” again features a nice interplay between horns and guitars. Silberman offers a few opening lines of lyrics, but the song mostly drifts into a delicate, instrumental jam that again highlights the Antlers’ guitarcraft but augmented with the echoing din of zipping electronic effects.

“Undersea”  makes for a consistent musical experience from start to finish, and what keeps it interesting is its organic quality thanks to a casual, confident exploration of classic instrumentation via an original, evocative vision.  Though Antlers’ vocalist, like Passion Pit’s, sings into high-pitched flourishes, he never ventures into obnoxious, over-the-top territory, flowing with the music organically and atmospherically. The vinyl looks to be an object to look forward to, as well, pressed on a dark blue (Deep Blue Sea) translucent wax, as revealed by a picture shared by the band via its Facebook page (pictured above).

Hans Morgenstern

Note: Columbia records offered a preview of Gossamer for the purposes of this review.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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