Friday, May 21, 2010

Review - Owen Pallett - Heartland

Owen Pallett is perhaps best known as the string arranger for indie-rock favorites Arcade Fire, though his work with The Pet Shop Boys shouldn’t be overlooked. Neither should his sporadic solo albums which until recently were recorded under the name of Final Fantasy, a name owing much to his love of turn-based gaming and all things geeky. Throw in the fact that Owen plays the violin and that his latest solo album, Heartland, is a concept album packed with meta-narratives between himself and Lewis, the ultra-violent farmer who lives in a world called Spectrum and is trying to come to terms with his creator, Mr. Owen Pallet, and surely I’ve lost ninety-nine percent of my readers.

Admittedly this music is a bit eccentric. It’s also playful, complex, gorgeous, lush, thrilling and a bit goofy. Despite the high-concept subject matter and orchestral setting, it is a feather in Mr. Pallett’s hat that Heartland never comes across as stuffy or pompous (indeed how could it with a song titled “Oh Heartland, Up Yours”?). Instead it’s a modern fairy tale, a musical for the innocently demented.

The album is one massive Pet Sounds on steroids. The greatest example is “Lewis Takes Action” where grand hooks, woodwind flourishes and sheer strings contrast with violent lyrics such as “I’ll bludgeon til’ the body’s cold.” But it’s a catchy, violent melody that will leave you humming for days! Another excellent example of Pallett’s prowess is “Midnight Directives,” the opening track which sets a tone of delicious anticipation, building a grand orchestral setup for the rest of the album with lush strings, compliments of the Czech Symphony Orchestra, augmenting the synthetic arcade blips that provide an eerie, unsettling background. Lots of drama in this one, yessir! Another excellent combination of quirky synth tones and traditional orchestra occurs in “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt”, an upbeat, invigorating song full of bright melodies and a memorable, defiant chorus of Lewis singing to his creator, “I’m never gonna give it to you.” “Tryst With Mephistopheles” is also bouncy and fun with eager horns and cheerful strings that radiate sunshine over a peppy beat driven by a spritely bass guitar, a masterful combination of chamber orchestra and rock instruments. And how can I not mention the frivolous Elfman-like cartoon silliness of the orchestration in “Flare Gun”? Apparently I can not!

Heartland is far from the usual rock album to which someone glues a string arrangement. Nor are they stuffy art songs with rock instruments painfully inserted. Rather Owen Pallett writes regular songs that encompass a greater breadth of instruments, placing each in their natural place. I strongly suspect that this album is a slow grower. I’ve listened to it a number of times with my magic headphones and though it hasn’t completely grabbed my heart I can tell that there’s something I haven’t “got” yet, something just out of my reach. Maybe this is what Lewis is singing about when he mockingly asserts that “I’m never gonna give it to you” and I’ll never be privy to this inside joke. But at least I’ll enjoy a few more listens as I try.

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