Friday, August 7, 2009

don't call it a throwback

So, I've been digging on "Ocean Eyes", the newly released longplayer from Owl City. Daft name really. But no one would really write about Adam Young if he used his real name. It's so unsexy in the crazy world of pop music.

Let me start by getting this out of the way so it doesn't weigh down my synopsis of the album. Adam, my dear, I would find it nearly impossible to believe that you weren't a massive fan of The Lightning Seeds. If I interviewed him and he told me he never heard of them, I'd swear he was a bold faced, class A fibber. His inspirations are crystal clear like a Caribbean lagoon. But the album never comes across as a throwback. That being said, if you like The Lightning Seeds, Frazier Chorus and various other early-to-mid 90s British pop, you'll certainly have palpitations should you choose to wrap your ears around "Ocean Eyes".

If you prefer the flavor of digital files, I suggest you download the album from iTunes because you get a couple of exclusive tracks. The first is a sprightly, mostly instrumental, dance remix of "Hello Seattle" which channels the heart of Erasure and features a lead synth line throughout which sounds like it was plucked right out of "While You See A Chance", Steve Winwood's big hit from 1981. "If My Heart Was A House", the second bonus track, is a lilting, piano driven waltz.

Most of the album is upbeat, bright and jolly with keyboard licks aplenty and percussion loops at every turn. Adam's sweet, slightly plaintive and nasally voice ups the pleasantries and general cheeriness of the album while lending the simple arrangements a touch of melancholy even at the most ebullient moments. And even though there's lots of saccharine sprinkled about the only nearly twee moment is "The Bird And The Worm". Thankfully, some nifty chord changes in the chorus save it from full tilt, sugar shock.

Most of Owl City's lyrics are a bit on the daring and challenging side for today's pop market. In fact, songs like "Cave In", "Hello Seattle" and "Dental Care" show a fondness for unusual subjects and situations. And that's not a bad thing. It gives the album a distinct identity in the crowded mediocrity of the current, musical landscape most new artists have been furrowing over the last decade.

The twinkly sounds of "The Saltwater Room" and album highlight, "Fireflies", give way to bigger, slightly arena rock choruses which give the songs more dimension and depth. And that's true for most of the album. Where "Ocean Eyes" could easily get boring, it's the shifts in arrangements and production within songs across the album that keep things fresh and interesting throughout. It's an album where the ear candy enhances the listening experience rather than relying on it to carry average material. The songs are strong, substantial, fantastic and grab the listener's attention right from the muted, opening strains of "Cave In" through the hyper, handclapping and strumming guitars of "Tidal Wave". Never a dull moment.

I suggest adding two recent songs which Owl City recently added to iTunes before the release of "Ocean Eyes" and thus, aren't included on the physical configuration of the album. "Hot Air Balloon" is a swingbeat affair which uses rhythmic, acoustic guitar to great effect in the way Erasure did in "Victim Of Love" or "A Little Respect". The way in which the guitar interplays with the warm, synth sounds reinforces the comparisons.

"Strawberry Avalanche" continues the Erasure-isms with a very, Vince Clarke inspired, keyboard figure repeating throughout a more muted number which still manages to pack more melodic punch than most pop artists do these days. Although Owl City's references lay squarely in the 80s and early 90s, the music never feels like it's a throwback. And even though it's contemporary sounding - fleeting, sideways similarities to power pop combo, Hellogoodbye, aside - the album never sounds like a record executive took it by the throat and tried to hammer it into something derivative. That alone is a major accomplishment for an artist in the current, musical climate.

Strange that this would find a home on a US label since I can't see anything on this album garnering any radio play. But then again, terrestrial radio is not the promotion vehicle it used to be. I find that a lot of the best music is shared among friends and acquaintances which is made more direct and immediate since the advent of the interwebs. So share "Ocean Eyes" and a smile with someone who loves uplifting, melodic, pop music.

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