ONE OF THE GREAT pratfalls of contemporary electronic music is the “preset fallacy,” or the tendency among lazier electronic composers to pull up pleasant presets of keyboards and drum sounds and incorporate them into a song without making them one’s own. Since the Postal Service succeeded in selling MacBooks to indie rockers, plenty of thoughtful songwriters have attempted to branch into laptop-folk and pop, and have fallen victim to the alphabet soup of ADSR envelopes and Moog emulators. Other have tried to run too far into traditional science-music, without the careful limits of songwriting and pop sensibility.
The Los Angeles duo Oliver The Penguin manage to avoid these dangers of electro-pop in their intriguing debut, Button Pusher, by injecting familiar tropes while simultaneoulsy working to shape a pleasant, non-pretentious sound that takes the best of the current wash of electro-pop and shapes it into a record that never takes off into space, yet never settles for mere presets.
The immediate quality of pair’s composition skills is apparent in the spacious synth sounds, vintage-tinged pads and stabs that don’t scream for attention, but create a mood, reminiscent of many of the synths in the vastly-underappreciated records by Halloween, Alaska records—another band that gets the blend of organic and synthetic instruments right nearly every time.
Oliver’s “Pictures By The Seashore” and “Second Chances” both offer excellent use of these subtle, lovely keys, thankfully not diving into Moog-heavy ear candy, nor attention-grabbing trendy keyboards of the moment. The gentle touches of acoustic guitars on “Pictures,” and the celeste and electric guitars on “Do I Leave My Heart Here” give careful nods to acoustic instruments, lending a welcome roominess to the sounds, reminding us of the humans behind the machines.
Rie Sinclair’s vocals are a treat that grow in value with each listen, from the initial preciousness of her delivery to the familiar-feeling blend of indie rock casual speak-singing. She also has a tendency toward very interesting background vocals, especially rewarding when settling in with headphones to explore the record, never giving way to anything too vanilla, always weaving in unexpected notes and effortless harmony.
Thematically, the songs tend to occupy a grey space of relationship dissection and yearning (the first track is called “Boys And Girls,” after all), drawing on familiar natural imagery, staying sweet all the while. This is more dangerous territory to try and stand out from the Owl Cities of the world, but somehow it never quite feels like doggerel. Even the gentle “King and Queen” mythology of “From Long Sleep” (where Tommy Walter gets to share lead vocals) shows a canny handle on specific words and phrasing that help propel it from potentially cringe-worthy territory to something fitting nicely between the too-cynical and too-saccharine. There is a sense that the lyrics all hint at specifics, but never really get there, communicating instead in vagueness that sounds strongest when it goes with a particular metaphor as in “Scissors And Glue,” or when the duo launches into what seems like a bit of honest exhaustion at a transient relationship. See “Do I Leave My Heart Here,” where Rie intones “the transition between multiple takes of surgery/we leave it open for interpretation.” Her voice creates moments like this, with the wry delivery sliding constantly into a soaring swoonnd back again, usually making up for the clunkier lyrical moments.
Some of the other common difficulties that electronic music faces in collision with songwriter pop are present in a few places, notably a lack of dynamic kick within each song. Nothing here punches too hard, or even flows too softly, it stays in a comfortable middle throughout, with some tunes just hinting at dance (“Mad Scientist”), and some just hinting at ballad (“Second Chances”). While the sounds are high quality and for the most part, well thought out, they do pull from a similar palette throughout, and this can create some blurring from song to song.
Yet despite the odds, Oliver The Penguin manages to stand above the candy-like interpreters of electro-pop (Owl City), and the too-precocious interlopers (Bird and The Bee), to fall into something more like Frou Frou: a mature, balanced collaboration of melody-wringer and beat-scientist. Neither performer lacks musical experience, Sinclair has been nominated for an Emmy, and Walter has worked with The Eels and Abandoned Pools.
While this record might not push any boundaries, nor knock at the door of Kid A or Post, it does offer a consistently enjoyable listen, and each song weathers well. Rie’s pleasant, but not flashy voice, and Walter’s tasteful instrumentation offer a great soundtrack to a sense of expectation and unrealized potential, to the anticipation of either glowing love or the fatigue of loneliness. That sense of just lifting off, the hope of something more keeps you wanting to hear what’s next.
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