Steve Wilson. On music.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Owen Pallett at No. 13 in the continuing Top 25 for 2010 Countdown!

Welcome to the top 25 for 2010 Countdown! Each day we'll countdown, today we continue with number 14, culminating with our (okay, my) numero uno album of the year. When they're handy I'll borrow my earlier reviews from the KC Free Press, as I have in this case. 

I welcome all comments, criticisms, questions and dialog in general.

25. Jon Langford - Old Devils (Bloodshot)
24. Vaselines - Sex with an X (Sub Pop)
23. Drive-By Truckers - The Big To-Do (ATO)
22. Magnetic Fields - Realism (Nonesuch)
21. Dum Dum Girls - I Will Be (Sub Pop)
20. Peter Case - Wig! (Yep Roc)
19. Bettye Lavette - Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook (Anti-Epitaph) 
18. Super Wild Horses - Fifteen (Hovac) 
17. Parting Gifts - Strychnine Dandelion (In the Red) 
16. No Age - Everything In Between (Sub Pop)
15. The Fall - Your Future Our Clutter (Domino) 
14. First Aid Kit - The Big Black and the Blue (Wichita Recordings) 
13. Owen Pallett - Heartland (Domino)

"Gifted Canadian musician composes an alienated song cycle for our age"

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Owen Pallett has played or arranged strings for innumerable alternative stalwarts like The Arcade Fire, Beirut and Fucked Up. His solo work was previously released under the Final Fantasy moniker. For Heartland, his often-brilliant new record, he’s just Owen Pallett.

Fans of the artist can give you more background than I’m inclined to pursue or portray, from his sexuality to his Dungeons and Dragons obsession. Supposedly, his previous album He Poos Clouds practically required D & D familiarity to decode. I’m a grown man and I could give a rat’s ass. Fortunately, to enjoy the music on Heartland I don’t have to.

And enjoy it I do — despite the fact that Pallett courts everything I detest in the precious modern artiste. His arrangements are complex, sometimes to the point of fussiness. At times, as on the opening track “Midnight Directives," he buries a good melody under au courant layers of electro-percussive percolation. And his lyrics can court obscurity to unnerving degrees.

His best songs are brilliantly crafted, though, and at their most communicative and impassioned they can be uniquely moving. Pallett has skills; you know — like in “Napoleon Dynamite” — composing skills, arranging skills, violinist skills. On the best performances from Heartland he puts these skills to work in service to the songs. An extraordinary talent by pop, indie or any standards, the multi-layered musicality of his arrangements approaches the work of John Cale on Paris 1919, updated for a post-digital universe.

That’s not to say there’s much tech-overkill to Pallett’s palette. For the most part, these songs are carried by violin, viola, keyboards (acoustic and electronic) and percussion. And when he needs embellishment he calls upon the Czech Symphony Strings and the St. Kitts’ Wind Ensemble, giving many of these tracks a full (sometimes lush, sometimes strident) chamber sound.

The protagonist of Heartland’s narrative of a sort is a farmer named Lewis. He has a nemesis named Owen. Yeah, that Owen. It’s complicated, convoluted even, but taken individually the songs address personal and political conflict (“Keep the Dog Quiet”), identity and religious devotion (“Red Sun NO. 5”), youthful defiance (“Lewis Takes Off His Shirt”), and alienation (“E is for Estranged”). And they betray a probing young mind, unafraid of the big philosophical questions.

Pallett’s musical touchstones are several, sometimes in one song — “Oh Heartland, Up Yours” shares half a title with an X-Ray Spex song, a melodic curve with classic Todd Rundgren, and a bridge structured like Steely Dan. Modern serious music touches are everywhere too, especially on “The Great Elsewhere” with its Phillip Glass serial, repetitive themes.

Heartland reaches an emotional crescendo with “Lewis Take Off His Shirt,” a gorgeous string and keyboard swirl ornamenting the defiant “I’m never gonna give it to you” refrain. Lewis is both embodiment and messenger of Pallett’s prevailing dread, invoking a sense that under the surface of normalcy lurks malevolence.

Owen Pallett certainly isn’t afraid of musical complexity, but he’s no stranger to hooks either. Heartland’s songs have fetching melodies and Pallett doesn’t shy away from a catchy chorus if the song is enhanced by one, a refreshing thing indeed in an alterna-verse dominated by the hook averse.

Reverberating: 8.7 (original), upgraded to 8.9