Written by: Dave Cantrell
Out of the center of a gentle swamp of electronics stutters a single staccato guitar note, followed by Marc St.Louis’s melancholic voice, in timbre and phrasing hewing eerily close to Matt Berninger and it’s ironically odd to hear the National singer fronting a band that actually sounds truer to the 4AD template than his own. The song is “Micromoving” which opens the California duo’s sophomore LP Are You Going To Stand There And Talk Weird All Night? and it takes itself on quite the journey, from that befogged beginning through a post-romantic, Sparklehorsed vocal intro before breaking free into full-driven Arcarde Fire-go-rave mode, the strobe-lit BPM outburst at 2:10 a bit of a shock but not an unwelcome one, giving the song a booster shot then receding to let it find its own glorious path to the end.
This sonic multi-tasking, spinning all at once the multiple plates of exuberance, melancholy, and a touch of almost accidental hedonism is a balancing act the band has been finessing since its inception and Are You Going… should earn the two their highest marks yet. To what extent this development is due to the involvement here behind the glass of The Monochrome Set’s Alec Dippie remains to be seen (and you’ll want to stay tuned) but smart money would bet against it. There’s a command and maturity and, most saliently, a depth on this album that 2009’s debut Sometimes Water Kills People tantalized us with but never quite reached.
So we get the boisterous sorrow of “Hounds,” Kate Bush had she woken up in a late-hours indie disco after a 30-year nap, the lights indeed flashing off the walls but making you feel reflective and a bit emotional as they do, Matilda Perks’s voice floating hard up near the rafters. We get “Us,” the pair confidently laying down some of the sludgy density of JAMC, complete with obligatory tambourine beat-keeping and a soupçon or two of distortion, arced over by Matilda and Marc’s pretty, light-touched harmonies sounding like Low singing their way out of a slow-moving electric dust storm. Beautiful, is what it is, as beautiful as the fear of loss can possibly sound.
And there’s not a small amount of loss being dealt with on this record, as both death and broken relationships have been endured between Valleys’ debut and this follow-up. Yet the aesthetic decision, whether conscious or not, to meet the pain of all that head-on with a sort of mournful resiliency has, mostly, paid rich dividends, perhaps no more so than on the emblematically titled “John, Meet Me At The Precipice.” From its lonely guitar-figured intro to being slowly bathed in an epic build of synth effects and a stake-driving percussive thump, it eventually pulls itself out of its ruminative morass via a hopeful little acoustic (or acoustic-sounding keyboard) riff and an upward sweep of inspiration vocals mixed with the kind of crashing thunder/spirit-lifting resolution that suggests the raising of defiant fists to the cruelty of the heavens.
Whereas “Absolutely Everything All The Time” mines a similar you-can’t-crush-my-dreams vein, it’s not all grief recovery and great sighs of of relief ’round here. “See The Moon?,” despite the deep bass tone lying beneath it like some sonorous floor of portent, is at heart as fine a piece of mid-tempo synth pop as you’re likely to hear this year, skipping along on a perky head-bop of a drum track and a melody sunny enough to hang a Saturday afternoon on.
As is not infrequent with albums this awash in lush electronic production, there are moments that drift in with good intentions but end up spending their time searching for a target they never find. “Living Normal,” which in fairness is meant to be a mid-album interlude, is a minute forty seconds best spent somewhere else, gone before you know it or even really hear it, as there’s nothing much to hear. “Before Fall,” though laced with the alluring lilt of Matilda’s Cocteau-ish vocal, doesn’t quite have enough attached to its heart monitor rhythm to fully constitute a life of its own.
But in every drive toward glory a couple of missteps, eh? Are You Going… in fact stands as a cumulative triumph, not least as it exits on the rather mighty “Undream A Year,” a recapitulative farewell with a dramatic, cinematic coda the scope of which, incredibly, surpasses all that’s come before it, the whole of the album funneled into this sumptuous finale, adrenaline and thankfulness and grace that one imagines the KLF might have been capable of had they chosen to traffic in true human emotion rather than soak themselves in withering – if astute – irony.
So, filmmakers out there looking for that all-encompassing sound you need to perfectly enhance the final scene of your next heart-pounding blockbuster, the one where your vulnerable, conflicted heroes, safe at last, gulp down fresh breaths of air on some office tower rooftop, the Tokyo skyline behind them luminous in the dawn’s light, I have a couple of musicians you might want to call.