Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Abandoned Pools - Sublime Currency

Abandoned Pools - Sublime Currency
Tooth & Nail Records, 2012
3.5 stars
"In the fabric of a very long enchantment
Will you wake me up from long sleep
You were my reflection
In a world abandoned
I will stitch back up our memories"

Writing the most gorgeous song of the year normally guarantees an artist and their album a spot on my year-end list, even if bits and pieces of that album don’t quite live up to it’s peak. Last year, Iron & Wine’s Kiss Each Other Clean shifted back and forth between disappointment and triumph for me, but I also invariably found myself coming back to “Godless Brother in Love,” the album’s stunning highlight. Abandoned Pools (the moniker for singer/songwriter Tommy Walter) reaches a similar level of dreamy opulence on “From Long Sleep,” the penultimate track from his first album in seven years. Introduced by a wistful burn of steel guitar, the song builds into an resplendent duet between Walter and female singer/songwriter Paris Carney, and the result is magical. Occasionally, a song comes along that feels like a flight of the soul and this is absolutely one of them; there is no more obvious autumn soundtrack staple this year.

The rest of Sublime Currency, the third full-length from Walter’s project and the first since 2005, doesn’t quite reach those stratospheric heights, but that’s not to say there aren’t other worthwhile moments. Take the neon-drenched opening trio, a trifecta of glorious pop songs that evoke ‘80s arena rock and hair metal (“Sublime Currency”), make fascinating sonic decisions (“Hype is the Enemy”), or showcase heavenly vocal harmonies (“Unrehearsed”)—all against a backdrop of indelible choruses. Walter’s synth-heavy, new wave-inspired sound works perfectly in more conventional song structures like these ones, constructing webs of gorgeous, full-bodied texture that demand to serve as soundtrack for a nighttime drive. The record is slightly less successful when it reaches beyond its indie-pop groundings towards something more experimental. Meandering compositions like “In Silence” (a striking song about marriage) and the anticlimactic closer “In Shadows” (“From Long Sleep” is a perilously tough act to follow) display Walter’s knack for creating mood music, but don’t touch the euphoric heights of the record’s best songs.

But for listeners who have followed this scene for awhile, for those of us who have spent the last decade delving into every record we could get our hands on, there is a lot to love about Sublime Currency. Walter writes songs that are full of feeling and nostalgia, often recalling the work of artists who came before him (or those who were his label mates at Tooth & Nail the last time he made an album). “Autopilot” plays out like Beneath Medicine Trees-era Copeland, complete with a spiraling electric guitar outro to recall “California,” that album’s centerpiece cut. “Legionnaire,” one of the record’s darker, more challenging moments, wouldn’t have been out of place on a Mae record. And don’t be surprised if the aforementioned slices of new wave transport you back to the ‘80s revival that took place in 2004, to how it felt the first time a record like The Killers’ Hot Fuss came cascading out of your speakers and filled your room with synthesizers.

Make no mistake, Sublime Currency has a lot of musical sides to it: from M83-esque atmospherics to an alt-country duet that wouldn’t be out of place on a Civil Wars record, Walter covers an awful lot of musical ground here, and that versatility should be commended. That said, not all of his sides work: the second half is, for the most part, messy and self-indulgent. Some listeners will be able to get blissfully lost in the plethora of musical textures, but others will be left scratching their heads at the album’s scatterbrained intentions and bizarre left turns. Undoubtedly, Sublime Currency is at its best when at its most conventional, when Walter lets his pure melodies (and his magnetic voice) do the heavy lifting. When he lets his one-man-band showmanship cloud the arrangements, the display is a fascinating exhibition of talent, but one that also causes its songwriter to lose sight of the core qualities of his compositions. The end result is a record that feels distinctly like it was written in pieces over a long period of time rather than in one inspirational burst of creativity. And that’s fine: what else can we expect from a songwriter who we haven’t heard from in seven years? But one can’t help but wonder what would happen if Walter could (or would) channel the yearning emotion of his best songs, stuff like “From Long Sleep” here, or “Goodbye Song” from his sophomore record Armed to the Teeth, into a single cohesive record. He may not always hit the bullseye on Sublime Currency, but when he is at the top of his game, few are better.

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