Sunday, April 26, 2009
Champagne Downtown - Halloween, Alaska (April Hangover Series)
East Side Digital Records.
SCQ Rating: 65%
April has seen a ton of new music swing through SCQ’s doors; enough to bury two individuals of the same apartment in completely different musical batches. So when comparing our favourite I-pod listens of the past week and I listed Halloween, Alaska among others, my girlfriend inquired: “I thought you said that wasn’t so great”. “Oh, it isn’t”, I followed without hesitation, as a tiny epiphany landed squarely in my lap. The band’s third effort Champagne Downtown grapples with a lot of promise, giving you guilty-pleasure shivers one moment then rolling your eyes the next. I, for one, am susceptible to lush, emotive indie-rock tunes that value texture over brash guitar tactics, mood over attitude, and while such traits place Champagne Downtown in an enviable position for many Death Cab for Cutie wannabes, I also happen to be vulnerable to clunky lyrical passages. I.e.:
“California knows full well/
it’s going to fall into the sea/
That’s why it never acts too serious/
I swear I’m not sad, I’m just serious/
There is a difference.”
There are several of these bored epiphanies on record, including full song investigations into manhood and patriotism on (no way!) ‘Be a Man’ and ‘Un-American’. It’s hard to really attach oneself to these tracks lyrically, in no small part because vocalist James Diers refuses to work his opinions into any clever narrative or instill a sense of conviction. They border on indifferent complaints. Luckily, Diers’ earnest songwriting fairs better when matched by his band’s sparse yet melody-drenched sound, as proven in the resonating keys and warm guitar of ‘Hot Pink’ or the tender vocals and (possibly M83-inspired) fuzz of their title track. Even ‘The Ends’, which utilizes keyboards in a way you haven’t heard since the dentist’s office in 1985, inspires cheesy, retro/elevator music to be better with some soft Cure-ish guitar tones keeping everything together. At the very least, this Minnesota-based quartet aren’t afraid to exist on the fringe of several scenes, staking synths and electronic percussion as essential instruments to their more traditional palette.
Halloween, Alaska got its first break on The O.C., which comes as no surprise given Champagne Downtown’s ability to soundtrack prime-time heartbreak. Still, this record stakes its own path in several instances (the late-night waltz of ‘Gone With the Wind’, the electronic flourishes to ‘Knights of Columbus’ spring to mind) and deserves a larger following. Diers has a voice perfectly suited to his band’s emboldened fragility and with Champagne Downtown, they’ve given me a musical conundrum to straighten out. How can I say the album isn’t so great when I also can’t stop listening to it? Maybe Diers said it best in ‘Hollywood Sign’: “it’s embarrassing, in a good way”.