Review: You Are All I See (Active Child)

They’re in your church at night.

In 2010, Active Child (“parented” by leader Pat Grossi) released a truly winsome EP called Curtis Lane. The EP boasted gorgeous melodies, mellifluous harp-playing, and unorthodox arrangements, all produced in a manner worthy of both “modern” and “timeless” adjec-tags. Merely a year later, Grossi has instigated a whole new, fresh set of stunning tunes, easily fit to be hailed as one of the year’s best.

You Are All I See, the band’s first full-length album, is comprised of ten beautiful, evocative, charming, and innovative tunes. The album’s title-track opener elegantly sets the soundscape of the album, launching airy synth particles into the corners of an imaginary cathedral– The snowflake-like harp strands are their accomplices, and they flutter down in colorful tranquility. “All good things in time..” Grossi and his angelic clone patiently sigh… “I know we’ll be fine…”

Lead single “Hanging On” arrives next, immediately erupting into dark, synth arpeggios, held hostage by startling vocal jolts; a dimly-lit cave with unsettling echoes. The alarming reverberations quickly evolve into intricate harmonies, blurring the line between melody and harmony— The bass rumbles cautiously, heralding the arrival of the commanding percussion programming. “You know we can get away / Because I’m ca-ah-aa-AUL…ling your name,” our narrator proclaims.

And while the “stylistically-implemented” auto-tune on “Playing House (featuring How to Dress Well)” is atrocious on Grossi’s magnificently well-trained pipes, none of the other tracks include such a blemish and are just as well-written and appropriately arranged as “You Are All I See” and “Hanging On.”

“High Priestess” and “Way Too Fast” come to mind as additional highlights— The first exemplifies Grossi’s “evocative” characteristic with great passion (stinging synth pads, sorrowful melodies, weeping vocal accessories, etc.), while the latter emphasizes the “innovative” nature of Grossi’s high-caliber material (ambient soundscape and percussion, unconventional vocal harmonies throughout).

Even the instrumental “Ivy” piece illustrates solid musicianship and songwriting ability. The progressive nature of such a tune as “Ivy” would typically allow for excessive repetition, but Grossi’s creativity boldly balances melodic familiarity with sonic adventurism, and the result is an arresting success.

You Are All I See is not only Active Child’s best release to date, but one of 2011’s landmark records. If Vagrant put out records like this on a weekly (or even monthly) basis, I would be a devoted fanboy.

90.5% / A-  ☆

(Purchase: Amazon [CD, MP3 or LP] / iTunes)

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Review: Sky Full of Holes (Fountains of Wayne)

Oh, Sultans of Powerpop… Teach me your clever and quirky ways…

Everyone who owned a radio between 2000 and the current day has likely heard “Stacy’s Mom.” And while that snarky, little masterpiece of a pop tune is still brilliant and timeless in its own right, Fountains of Wayne is much more than even a hit like “Stacy’s Mom” allows.

Sky Full of Holes, the troupe’s fifth official studio album, is a gorgeous collection of strikingly memorable powerpop songs. And while the Fountains have always been melodically brilliant, compositionally inventive, and infinitely witty– Sky Full of Holes is (somehow) easily their greatest project to date; and additionally, one of 2011’s best releases.

Fountain leaders Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger are the modern-day Lennon/McCartney, and that’s no exaggeration. Their uncanny ability to craft satiating singles and high-caliber pop tunes has gone nearly unmatched throughout the past decade– And though I rarely agree with the publication, Rolling Stone‘s decision to name Fountains of Wayne “‘the voice’ of Generation X upon the collapse of Nirvana” is more than fitting.

Sky Full of Holes exemplifies this “voice” even more aptly than even culturally relevant hits such as “Valley of Malls” and “Someone to Love” did previously. Two off-beat entrepreneurs attempt to overcome the waning economy in “Richie and Ruben,” the hardworking American gets an admirable nod in “Workingman’s Hands,” the overly-produced synth-pop of the the 2010’s era is astutely parodied in “Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart,” and the album’s poignant finale (“Cemetery Guns”) is a military-themed requiem for the ages. In a nutshell, Sky is 2011’s own personal soundtrack.

Not only is the lyrical material relevant; but also, the musical material is supreme in all respects. Production is crisp, but far from overdone (sample “Acela” for the greatest balance of raw and smooth). Arrangements are full, colourful, and appropriate (see “A Dip in the Ocean,” “Radio Bar,” and “Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart” for the prime of the prime examples). Oh, and the melodies… And harmonies…  They are effortless, yet completely flawless. “Cold Comfort Flowers,” “Firelight Waltz,” and “Action Hero” are the most noteworthy exemplifications, though all thirteen tunes are rich in the melodic department.

Basically, Sky Full of Holes is a must-own. Powerpop at its best, and one of the best of the year. Don’t miss it.

A+ / ☆

(Purchase: Yep Rock [CD or LP] / Amazon [CD, MP3 or LP] / iTunes)