Wednesday, April 29, 2015

album review: 'kindred' by passion pit

So let me clue you all in to one of the biggest 'tricks' surrounding indie pop, and where it can have an easy path to critical acclaim with a similar sound to what's subsequently derided in the mainstream. Simple enough trick, but it works a lot more often than you think: tonal subversion. Basically how it works is a shift in the tone or content of your lyrics in comparison to that of your music - shifting the acid high to the acid freakout, a song with a generally cheery tone being about death, you get the picture. If you trace your way through the indie scene and especially indie pop, you see a lot of this. Take the typical pop framework and use it to package lyrics that might not be all that exceptional with a similar tone, but make the instrumentation go in the opposite direction and suddenly people will really start taking notice.

Now of course there's a scale of quality to this, because there are plenty of acts who go against the tone of their instrumentation lyrically and have the skill as writers to pull it off. But if we're looking for an act who has gone to this well more aggressively and consistently than nearly any other indie pop act, I'd point to Passion Pit, an indie pop band that I've liked but never quite loved that exploded in 2009 with their breakout hit Manners. And let's make this clear, I'm not really a fan of Manners as a whole - going back to it, the chiptune production and sugar-sweet instrumentation hasn't precisely aged well, and Michael Angelakos' shrill, breathy voice could start to grate on my nerves, especially considering how bleak the lyrics often got. They nailed the balance a lot better on Gossamer in 2012, swapping out pure sugar for a more opulent and varied presentation, and Angelakos' delivery didn't feel as one-dimensional - just as earnest but you could tell there was other emotions boiling behind the surface, holding on by a thread as frail and precarious as its title.

Well, turns out there was a reason for that dichotomy - Angelakos had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and after a year of cancelled tours and therapy, things seemed to have finally righted themselves, with Angelakos replacing his entire live band and bringing in a new producer: Benny Blanco, the writer/producer known for churning out some of the biggest hits of the early 2010s for Kesha, Katy Perry, and Maroon 5. To see him on a Passion Pit album seemed to imply that they'd probably be going in a much more commercial direction... did we get that with Kindred?

Well, we got something like it - in that Passion Pit's sugar-high seems to have been concentrated even further into the equivalent of musical Pixie Sticks: sickly sweet, oddly fuzzy, cheap, and one that leaves you with a splitting headache midway through. Now don't get me wrong, there's a place for maximialism and retro-synthpop in the modern indie scene, but Passion Pit's approach on Kindred has none of the tightness, restraint, or punch that I appreciated on their earlier work - in other words, I'd argue it's Angelakos' worst record by a considerable margin and barely passable.

So to start, we need to talk about Michael Angelakos himself, and let me stress that where I've tended to find his voice powerful and impacting is across more of his mid-range. He's got pipes and can hit those ridiculously high notes at impressive volumes when it doesn't sound like he's singing through a bad head cold, but it's hard to add gravitas in that range. So guess where the majority of this album is spent, with the added joys of pitch-shifting, reverb, and some of the sloppiest autotune I've heard since 2009. Coupled with choruses that are so heavily multi-tracked to create a wall of voices - and yet with only rare examples of actual harmonies, which strikes me as a wasted opportunity to emphasize some of the more symphonic moments like on the album closer 'Ten Feet Tall' - the shrill squeal of Angelakos' voice will quickly start grating on the nerves. And it's either through odd contortions that just sound terrible like on the syllable-elongation on the chorus of 'Looks Like Rain', or mostly because the choruses seem designed to be cranked to eleven and crush through your brain.

And thus it's a little alarming how few of them do, which takes us to the instrumentation and production, where the similar sense of excess has taken hold. To some extent it's not surprising - Benny Blanco has worked in EDM-flavoured pop before and the thicker, buzzing beats that he injects are generally unremarkable if about four years out of date - but the issue runs much deeper than that. At this album's best, there are some sturdy guitar, bass, and synth lines, like on 'Where The Sky Hangs', the more restrained 'Dancing On The Grave', or the gentler 'Looks Like Rain' - but then you get all sorts of effects piled along the edges that take away from the twinkling keyboards or solid grooves. At best, we get off-kilter fuzz flutters or a little too much reverb, but at worst, we get the glitchy squeals dumped all over 'Whole Life Story' or the pitch-shifted lines and overstuffed mix of 'Five Foot Ten' or the overcompressed and muffled percussion blasts and terrible pitch correction all over 'Until We Can't (Let's Go)'. It's the difference between adding a bit of sugar or whipped cream for a cake and eating it straight from the can - it's gaudy and tacky, so much bedazzled puff that you quickly realize there's so little substance beneath it. And in this case I'm referring directly to the production: sure, there are beats here, but most of the percussion and cymbals are in the mid-range, and without tight basslines or thicker, punchier drums, there's nothing to add weight or memorable groove to these tracks. And the same thing happens with the album's melody - we get more of it simply courtesy of all of the keyboards and vocal samples trying to contribute, and outside of some terribly synth tones on the interludes like on 'Looks Like Rain', the hooks seem to be more anchored in Angelakos' overwrought singing than any actual tune. And what this means is that so many of these songs smear together and don't develope a unique personality for me.

So surely those darker, more subversive lyrics might be able to save this album, right? Well, here's the thing - for as much as the instrumentation went big, the lyrics went for a much smaller scope, focusing on Angelakos' relationship with his wife and family, those who love him. More specifically, it focuses on Angelakos' personal insecurities, how someone could love him beyond them, panicked that they could ever leave - and, of course, several heavy-handed shots taken at the public and music press for prying too deeply into his personal life. And in one of the few points I'll give this album, I'd argue that Angelakos has a point here - music criticism in certain sphere has taken a turn for the tabloid and for the worse, with certain reviews much preferring to discuss the controversy or glorify the personality than actually talk about the music. And I can definitely sympathize with so much of his material being licensed by a clueless public who never bothers to read into the lyrics. But my sympathy only stretches so far here, and the whinier side of Angelakos' personality can get insufferable in a hurry, becaus some of the insecurities he puts forward can feel trivial, like lying about being one inch shorter in his height on 'Five Foot Ten' or his relationship insecurities on 'All I Want' - when not two songs earlier it was implied she was going to love him regardless.

This ties into the biggest issue I have with this album: dramatic stakes. Namely, that the more I listened through this record, the less Kindred seemed to have any. The insecurities are small, the relationship drama is pretty lightweight, the haters are insubstantial, and by the end of the record, I get the feeling so very little has changed or evolved. The one song that got close to actual maturity was 'Dancing On The Grave', how you can't really celebrate forever as you grow up and have to face the sunlight, as repeated by the refrain 'I can't stay here'. Coupled with the more somber tone, it's one of the few moments I actually felt a connection with Angelakos - but then throughout the rest of the album he goes back to the same painfully saccharine material, with even the possibility of rain washing their cries away. But the really telling song was 'My Brother Taught Me How To Swim', how Angelakos wishes he could give of himself the same way his brother did, wishes he could be that compassionate and generous... but there's nothing about this album that reveals he isn't throwing everything on the line, so were all of those previous insecurities at love just a way to garner our sympathy or get his own way?

Now I honestly doubt that's the case, but it sure as hell doesn't make Kindred by Passion Pit any more likable. The production goes for pop but does so without grasping any sort of tight groove or sticky melody, instead dumping studio effects to add gloss without foundation. At least the lyrics evoke some thought and a few moments that clicked, but more they revealed attempts to snag our sympathy without the deeper self-awareness or tact or maturity to earn it. For me, it's barely a 5/10 and only a recommendation to hardcore Passion Pit fans, but it's easily the weakest of their three albums. Otherwise... look, there's no shortage of synthpop right now, and The Wombats' straightforward underdog charm is far more likeable than this. I'd skip it.

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