Being an electronic pop act is a lot harder than it used to be.
It wasn't that long ago that lo-fi electronic pop was all the rage with the indie set—remember when The Postal Service was blowing everyone's mind in 2003? Whether cobbled together by a lone soldier in his bedroom, or assembled with old synths, some spare instrumentation, and often sparer musical ability, the music was ostensibly indie pop, owing a lot more to C86 and twee than it did Detroit techno or Chicago house. Now that 2010 has rolled around, the indie pendulum continues to swing back and forth between laptop producers and more traditional guitar-based instrumentation, but the simple act of being a DIY electronic act is no longer revolutionary. As such, new albums from High Places and Javelin, not to mention genre veterans Lali Puna, have a tougher hill to climb than their counterparts of a decade prior.
German outfit Lali Puna has been conspicuously absent in recent years, last releasing an album in 2004 with Faking the Books. As part of the Morr Music roster, Lali Puna—with the help of like-minded acts Ms. John Soda, B. Fleischmann, and The Notwist—helped put a very particular brand of electronic music on the map in the early '00s, one marked by clean synths, minimal percussion, plenty of sonic white space, melodic vocals delivered in a nearly deadpan manner, and traditional pop songwriting. And while Our Inventions may have been six years in the making, very little has changed; it's telling that even when the band collaborates with Yellow Magic Orchestra's Yukihiro Takahashi on the exceedingly pleasant album closer, "Out There," the repeated refrain is "seems just like always." Make no mistake, Our Inventions is a very nice album—"Rest Your Head" and "Everything is Always" are precious little slices of pop music—just don't expect kids who have been gorging on the psychedelic exploits of Animal Collective to flip out over this one.
Much more likely to capture their imagination is No Más, the debut album from sample-loving Brooklyn duo Javelin. Within the first seconds of bouncy album opener "Vibrationz," it's clear that these boys are piloting a quirky, fun-filled journey through decades of oddball pop stylings. Whether it's helium-voiced 8-bit B-Boy hip-hop ("Oh! Centra"), spazzy, falsetto '80s electro ("On It on It"), glamorous synth disco with Beach Boys-esque vocal harmonies ("Moscow 1980"), or chopped-and-sliced piano funk ("Susie Cues"), No Más offers one lighthearted romp after the next. And while the album's unique collage of what seems like vintage sounds will prompt endless "is that a sample?" debates amongst crate diggers, the pure joy offered by just listening will hopefully reveal those arguments for what they are—beside the point.
Fellow Brooklynites High Places are far less likely to find such diplomacy in response to High Places vs. Mankind, their second full-length. Past efforts often came across as pastoral, with Mary Pearson's childlike vocals dancing above sparse, loop-based electronic soundscapes, and similar moments ("She's a Wild Horse," "Canada") do populate the new album. But some lo-fi purists will undoubtedly cry foul when they hear "The Longest Shadows" or "When It Comes," which bookend the album with slightly glossier production and an '80s goth-disco vibe that recalls Siouxsie and The Banshees or The Church. These tracks, along with "On Giving Up" and "Constant Winter," undeniably signal High Places' shift toward a more accessible sound, but they also happen to be some of the brightest spots on the album. More likely to please everyone is the ingenuous standout "On a Hill in a Bed on a Road in a House," which successfully balances the band's scrabbly beginnings with their desire to keep moving forward. And isn't that the point? The phrase "stagnation is death" may be a little strong, but change is certainly preferable to having your latest album referred to as "nice."
Lali Puna Our Inventions: 6.5
Javelin No Más: 8.0
High Places High Places vs. Mankind: 7.5