ARCHITECTURE IN HELSINKI: PLACES LIKE THIS (2007)
1) Red Turned White; 2) Heart It Races; 3) Hold Music; 4) Feather In A Baseball Cap; 5) Underwater; 6) Like It Or Not; 7) Debbie; 8) Lazy (Lazy); 9) Nothing's Wrong; 10) Same Old Innocence.
In 2006, Architecture In Helsinki parted ways with two of their former members (Tara Shackell and Isobel Knowles), drastically reducing their brass section — not a big problem, as the slots were occupied by an even larger selection of session musicians as soon as the time was ripe for the recording of their third album. A much bigger problem is that the third album introduces serious change to their basic style — a change for the worse, which, given AiH's already evident struggle to maintain their own face, means a downright failure.
To put it bluntly, Cameron Bird had suddenly decided that AiH need to start thinking of themselves as a rock band, thinking along the lines of his (presumably) childhood idols from the pop-punk, New Wave, and electro-funk departments — the accursed «1980s nostalgia», the great bane of the 2000s indie movement, hits again with full devastating force. Consequently, ʽRed Turned Whiteʼ is AiH working à la Prince; ʽHold Musicʼ is AiH working à la Talking Heads; ʽLazyʼ is AiH working à la... UB40? Something like that. ʽSame Old Innocenceʼ is a most deceptive title to finish off the record with — for the most part, Places Like This is busy chasing out the «same old innocence» of the band's first two LPs, and replacing it with dance beats, fast grooves, and a drunk, mildly surrealist, party atmosphere.
I am not saying that such a transformation could not succeed in theory. But there are two huge, purely practical problems that prevent that theory from working. First, as many other reviewers have noted before, we have here a complete shift in singing style: not only do Bird's vocals now occupy most of the space (largely ushering out the generally far more agreeable leads from Sutherland), but he has also switched from psychedelic hushes, murmurs, and whispers to screaming and barking, and there are few things more irritating in this world than to have to listen to an unskilled screamer and barker, unable to properly align his vocal noise with the general atmosphere of the composition or the entire album. When David Byrne played the «paranoid intellectual idiot» part on the early Heads records, he did it credibly, both through his own singing and the perfect agreement with the music that surrounded it. When Bird tries to do the same on ʽHold Musicʼ, he seems to only respect the «idiot» part — there is nothing paranoid or intellectual about his effort. No meaning at all, for that matter, just an empty form.
Second, this is still the same old Architecture In Helsinki — in that they still haven't figured out a proper way to come up with memorable songs. And now that the original aura has dissipated, it is unclear what exactly should justify listening to something like ʽRed Turned Whiteʼ. The openly annoying vocals? The playful, but emotionless synth patterns? The lack of a clear opposition between verse and chorus? The predictably incomprehensible lyrics? Whatever they wanted to say with this song, it seems to me that they did not manage to say it in a language I understand, either on the sensual or the intellectual level. And the same goes for 90% of this album.
Here are the minimal bits and pieces that did manage to speak out. Number one: the high-pitched, swirling, supernatural vocal harmonies on ʽHeart It Racesʼ (slightly Arcade Fire-like in style). Number two: some peculiarities of the arrangement on ʽUnderwaterʼ that really manage to convey an «underwater» atmosphere (not that this is in any way original in 2007) — the song in general is arguably the closest in spirit to the «proper» AiH. Number three: cute pop guitar interplay at the end of ʽLazyʼ. Number four: big relief when the whole thing is over — and an even bigger thank you for the fact that it only barely runs over 30 minutes.
In all, this is one of the most displeasing transitions from «mediocrity with a promise» to «embarrassment without redemption». What is most offensive about the whole enterprise, of course, is that the entire record still has a defiantly «artsy» feel — the band retains their multi-instrumental kitsch, the complexity of compositions, the inscrutability of the lyrics. But as far as my heart and mind conspire to tell me, there is not an ounce of genuine substance or meaning in the whole thing. One could, perhaps, see a bunch of college freshmen getting high to this kind of thing, party spirit and all. However, they'd still have to be sorry about it the morning after the party. A disgusted, rather than simply dazed and confused, thumbs down here.
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