Owen Pallett

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Has A Good Home (2005), 6/10
He Poos Clouds (2006), 7/10
Heartland (2010), 7/10
In Conflict (2014), 5/10

After collaborating with Arcade Fire, Canadian violinist and singer-songwriter Owen Pallett debuted under the moniker Final Fantasy with Has A Good Home (Blocks, 2005), a set of spartan bedroom lullabies mostly orchestrated for violin and tape loops a` la Andrew Bird.

The ambitious concept He Poos Clouds (Blocks, 2006), that blends pop and orchestral music, is based on computer games. He croons gently against a syncopated string orchestra and an accordion in The Arctic Circle. The neurotically baroque strings of He Poos Clouds shape the dramatic atmosphere of a kammerspiel. The piano unfolds pianola-style minuets in the vaudeville skit of This Lamb Sells Condos, and later a multi-faceted choir takes over the narration like in an ancient Greek play. On the other hand, his angst-filled vocals rule in If I Were A Carp, the strings standing back as a mere corollary. The spiraling motion of the strings is mirrored by the voice Im Afraid Of Japan, and both eventually sink into the quicksands of the subconscious. Percussion instruments duet with plucked strings in Song Song Song that surprisingly evolves into a jovial gypsy march. The comic, or at least childish, element that shows up every now and then sits frontstage in Do You Love?, a polka-like nursery rhyme. The cycle ends with the stately Albinoni-esque adagio of The Pooka Sings, with Pallett crooning passionately but in a whisper.
The string accompaniment is rarely rude. Mostly, it harks back to the theatrical neoclassical style of Stravinsky, which fits wonderfully with Pallett's subdued but sincere singing. It often achieves the quality of a "call and response" scheme between voice and orchestra, whether in a charming domestic manner (This Lamb Sells Condos and Song Song Song) or in a severe lied-like manner (If I Were A Carp, The Pooka Sings). This humble album makes Elvis Costello look like a pompous amateur.

The metaphysical rock opera Heartland (Domino, 2010) exhibits a stronger sense of rhythm (thanks to Arcade Fire's drummer Jeremy Gara), which is a mixed blessing. Keep the Dog Quiet is almost entirely played on a (bossanova-like) rhythmic foundation (even the vocals). The other major change is that the strings are supplemented with very loud wind instruments. The horns and percussions make themselves heard right from Midnight Directives, a lush serving of easy-listening pop if it weren't for the crowded decoration. Ditto for Lewis Takes Action, whose old-fashioned cinematic leitmotif is continuously hijacked by sonic detours. The sprightly, bouncing Lewis Takes Off His Shirt is electroacoustic chamber music all but in name, having merged digital keyboards with virtually the entire orchestra, all the way to a grandiloquent apotheosis. If this weren't enough distraction, the church-like hymn The Great Elsewhere is further alienated by skittery digital effects and a circular minimalist organ pattern, but somehow it finds the energy to spring forward in a frenzied crescendo. Because it eschews the orchestral and rhythmic elements of the other songs, the piano ballad E Is for Estranged is the one that returns to the mood of the previous album. The vocals retain their leading role in Red Sun No 5, approaching the sunny, beach-y flavor of the Beach Boys, in Oh Heartland Up Yours, whose scaffolding consists mainly of sophisticated digital and acoustic events, and in the closer What Do You Think Will Happen Now?, a bedroom whisper that imitates babytalk and gets loped around another vocal line, thus becoming two songs in one.
In an album so full of sounds, the seven-minute Tryst with Mephistopheles feels like an overdose. Structured like a pounding bolero that is interrupted a few times by violently plucked strings, it eventually leads to a soaring trumpet elegy after having withstood all sorts of piano and flute manoeuvres.
Compared with the previous album, this one projects the feeling of a painstakingly assembled collage rather than a spontaneous flow of sounds and vocals. Whether by accident or not, the melodies are stronger and deeper. Now the referent is not the orchestral pop of the 1960s but the baroque pop of his decades (from Magnetic Fields to Rufus Wainwright) Whatever emotional power is lost on one side comes back on the other side. And so it is that the number of memorable songs (The Great Elsewhere, E Is for Estranged, Lewis Takes Action, Keep the Dog Quiet) is greater here than in its predecessor. Heartland is the emotional and extroverted couterpart to the frigid and austere He Poos Clouds, and viceversa.

In Conflict (2014), on the other hand, is a mess. One is not sure if the heavily symphonic I Am Not Afraid is supposed to be a song or what: there is no refrain, and hardly a melody, the beat is trivial and the orchestra only embarrasses itself. In Conflict, on the other hand, clearly harks back to the most obnoxious kitsch elements of lounge music. The upbeat singalongs On a Path and Song for Five & Six are poppy but and perhaps danceable but not exactly revolutionary: we have heard millions of synth-pop ditties like this. The second half of the album seems to abandon the struggle for the pop hit. A few electronic tricks in Chorale and, at least, a humbler vocal style in The Passions promise more than they deliver but the supercharged The Riverbed manages to turn its pneumatic beat into a veritable weapon of mass crescendo. The orgiastic polyrhythms of Infernal Fantasy maul appropriately the one stately refrain of the album. However, even the nicest tricks cannot raise the album from a state of general mediocrity. To add insult to injury, Pallett's crooning has become smooth and polished like the vocals of an aspiring second-rate r&b singer. The emphatic arrangements are just about the worst that one could concoct for this kind of half-baked pop. Brian Eno, who plays guitar and synthesizers, should have known better.

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(Copyright © 2010 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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