Monday, November 28, 2011

Better Late Than Never Reviews: Hurry Up, We're Dreaming - M83

Anthony Gonzalez, the man behind electropop outfit M83, has a flair for the dramatic, one that he shows off to stirring effect on the band's sixth studio album, Hurry Up, We're Dreaming. Over the course of two discs, his latest creation is often captivating, sometimes head-scratching, yet always indicative of a supremely talented sonic architect at the peak of his powers.

Highlights abound on this two-disc monster. Lead single "Midnight City" opens with an absolutely filthy, addictive beat built on decadent synth, thumping drums, and deliciously sexy moaning vocals. It's a song basically made for pumping out of your car's rolled-down windows, even if it is freezing as balls like it should be in December. I will be honest: I even bought the sax solo on this one. Splashy guitar, congo-esque percussion, and vaguely Carribean-sounding vocals drive the intensely layered "Reunion," while pounding kick drums, cooing vocals, and swirling keys make the awesomely titled "Steve McQueen" hum.

Perhaps the album's best songs are the two that nakedly pay homage to that most harangued of musical decades. Yes, the '80s. "Claudia Lewis" is simply incredible with flute-like synth, whipping 808 cracks, scatting vocals, and nimble bass that would probably sound cheesy as hell on any other album. However, as applied by Justin Meldal-Johnson, who has worked with everyone from Beck to Trent Reznor, it simply rules, as does the unhinged synth solo that peeks out toward the song's crescendo. Serving as a mirror image to this track is "OK Pal," which features another tremendous vocal arrangement, more up-tempo keys, more crush-your-woofer drum beats, and, of course, more bass that can only be played the way Paul Rudd wielded the instrument in I Love You, Man. Slappin' the bass? Indeed!

As stated previously, Gonzalez definitely has love for heavy, operatic tracks, and nowhere is that indicated more effectively than on the appropriately titled "Intro" and "Outro." The former opens with synth notes seemingly stacked on top of each other for miles, moving to a drumbeat reminiscent of early U2, and climaxing in a chorus expertly applied by a buzzing hive of warm falsettos. "Outro" meanwhile wraps up the second disc with stirring strings that descend into a space-like rumble only to surface anew with more mammoth drums, light jangly guitar, and a gentle piano departure. Put simply its dramatic as your average Terrence Malick flick and it's an extremely effective (and affecting) way to close down the show.

Of course, with an album this ambitious, there is bound to be flubs, and Hurry Up, We're Dreaming has a few. The second half of the album is nowhere near as complete as the first and it leaves the listener appreciative of the work, but still left with an impression that the piece could have been sheared into one album. The presumptuously titled "Splendor" sounds like the obligatory track on a "serious" album that has to recorded in a barn or whatever. With its spare, echoey piano and Simon and Garfunkel-esque crooning, it's not what Gonzalez does best and it is about two times longer than it needs to be (and that is at five minutes). "Year One, One UFO" takes what would have been a good section of a song, and turns it into a three-minute guitar/fill-heavy drum ditty. Interesting. Not essential. Meanwhile, "Echoes of Mine" is, at best, the closest the album comes to silly pretension and, at worst, simply hideous. It features an intermittently rising synth assault repetitively juxtaposed with a lady speaking French after about 50 years of sucking on Virginia Slims. Maybe I would have liked this track better if my name was Jacques and I lived in Versailles (or if I smoked), but I doubt it.

There are also four short pieces on the album that serve as interludes between tracks. Some ("Klaus I Love You," "Fountains") are better than others ("Train to Pluton," "When Will You Come Home?"). Still, the tricky thing about these is even the ones that sound kind of cool leave you with the impression that they should have been developed more. Otherwise, why not just leave them off the album, cut it down to one disc, and save a lot of...whatever they use to make CDs and vinyl and stuff. I should also say that, although Gonzalez does an excellent job handling the vocals on a majority of the songs, I was a little disappointed by the lack of substantive duties for singer/keyboardist Morgan Kibby, who, while she was responsible for great tracks such as "Skin of the Night" and "Up!" off of M83's previous album, Saturday = Youth, here is responsible for primarily spoken-word duties. In other words, give her something to do or leave her off the album.

Even with these flaws (and the Kibby thing is completely subjective and, frankly, nit-picky), however, I would still describe Hurry Up, We're Dreaming as essential listening for any true audiophile. If you only buy it for the immensely satisfying oddity that is "Raconte-Moi Une Histoire," you will have probably gotten your money's worth. Featuring deep, distorted, repetitive synth notes, staccato drum notes, swelling strings, and an awe-worthy choral arrangement, it is probably the best song ever to feature a voice manipulated to sound like a five-year-old girl holding court on the pleasures of turning herself and all of her friends into frogs. It is also the kind of sonic adventure that makes this album not the best of the year, but certainly one of the most worthy of frequent exploration, chain-smoking mademoiselle be damned.

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