Unknown Mortal Orchestra: "Multi-Love"

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This music review originally ran in Sounditout.com on June 2, 2015.

It can be difficult for those who came of age before the 1980s to find the sound of soul in a synthesizer (just ask my dad). But the rest of us know it’s possible: look no further than Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” propelled by the all-digital funk of the Roland TR-808 drum machine. And Ruban Nielson, the mastermind behind Unknown Mortal Orchestra, knows it, too.

Nelson wrote and recorded the new album, “Multi-Love” in his Portland, Oregon basement during sessions lasting long into the early morning, eventually calling on his brother Kody Nielson Riley Geare, Jacob Portrait and his father, jazz trumpeter Chris Nielson, to fill out the arrangements. Although “Multi-Love” has been promoted as a sort of audio diary of his Ruban Nielson’s experiment with polyamory, you would never know there was any concept behind it other than a quest for soulful songs and the heartfelt expression of emotions.

Deploying a palette of synthesized keyboards, drum machines and bright, versatile falsetto, the songs call back to some of the 1980s’ great purveyors of heartbreak-with-a-beat, from A Flock of Seagulls to Split Enz, especially in the title track and on “Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty.” There’s a good helping of “Raspberry Beret”-era Prince here, too; check out the psychedelic swirl of “The World is Crowded” and “Necessary Evil.”

The greatest heroes of disco and New Wave triumphed when they were able to combine technical perfection with a dab of that special sauce known as human frailty, and Unknown Mortal Orchestra aims for the same recipe here. And while the turbulent story of Nielson’s polyamorous adventure has been told elsewhere, the emotional record of it–this record–provides as much drama and detail as most of us need. Is it complicated? Sure. But it’s fun, too.

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Tennis: "Easter Island"

tennis-220x162 This music review originally ran in Sounditout.com on April 13, 2015

When you hear the title of this song, don’t think “Easter Island” as in giant, looming monolithic heads staring out to sea. Think “Easter” as in Peeps, chocolate eggs and pastel-colored baskets because it’s a bouncy, clappy, sweet little number that has nothing to do with scary statues standing lonely on the most isolated island in the world. No, kids, this is happy stuff.

The new single from Tennis, the Denver-based trio comprised of married couple Alaina Moore (vocals, keyboard, guitar) and Patrick Riley (guitar, bass) and drummer James Barone, continues in the poppy, 1970s AM-radio style they moved into on their second and third albums, “Young & Old” (Fat Possum, 2012) and “Ritual & Repeat” (Communion, 2014).

Moore’s bright, clear vocals are right out in front; you can envision a little white bouncing ball (maybe pink?) skipping over the lyrics as they pass by onscreen some Saturday morning of Long Ago. The echoey production and dominant harpsichord-like keyboard make me want to suggest it to Wes Anderson for the soundtrack of his next film. Like his movies, the music of Tennis feels slightly out of time, as if it’s been scooped out of a candy-colored historical era that never quite existed, and daintily deposited into the here and now. Enjoy–it’s calorie-free.

Sailor & I: "Disorder"

sailor-i-440x440-300x300 This music review originally appeared in Sounditout.com on May 18, 2015.

It’s getting faster, moving faster now, it’s getting out of hand, On the tenth floor, down the back stairs, it’s a no man’s land…

If you’re used to hearing these lyrics flying by in the tick-tick-ticking metronome of Ian Curtis’s drone, you may not even recognize it as a cover of the Joy Division song “Disorder” when performed by Alexander Sjodin, the Swedish DJ, vocalist, and indietronica musician who records under the name Sailor & I.

While the original is dark and propulsive, Sailor & I’s version is soft and languid, Bernard Sumner’s whining guitar replaced by delicate piano and lush synthesized chords. The original “Disorder” evoked manic anxiety; this new one invites the listener to lean back and if not relax, at least sit still until the inevitable club remix kicks in.

The best cover songs teach us something new about the original material and bring out an aspect of the songwriting that was hidden before. In this case the spare, elegant approach of Sailor & I peels the frenzy of punk away from “Disorder” and reveals a gorgeous little melody that had been hiding there all along. Imagine David Sylvian + Ryuichi Sakamoto covering the Stooges, or Stateless covering Siouxsie and the Banshees. It’s—wait for it—so crazy it just might work. And in this case it does. Beautifully.