Food Writer Regan Hoffmann posted a tweet in February, as part of the “music writing exercise” #mwe hashtag campaign, speaking on The Carpenter’s “A Song For You”: “I’m finally able to look past the offputting sugary arrangements to understand how dark Karen Carpenter was. #mwe”
Much of the most timeless Pop music flirts with darkness. From the sexual exploits of Led Zeppelin, to the “watching-a-train-wreck-as-its-happening” voyeurism of Amy Winehouse’s career, we seem to prefer our sweetness with a little bit of the bitter. Historically, much of this darkness is implied, behind the scenes – from Stevie Nicks’ cocaine enemas to Karen Carpenter’s tragic eating disorders to the expat bacchanalia of the Rolling Stones Exile On Main Street. We find out, after the fact, all manner of disturbing, fascinating details.
Maybe it’s because we’ve had nearly 100 years of eccentric pop stars. We’ve learned to peel back the shiny outer layer, looking for a scoop, some kind of narrative to hang a batch of songs on. Something juicy.
Many of today’s pop artists realize this fact, and knowingly play with this expectation, artists like “noir&b” acts like The Weeknd, or the defracted, unreachable distance of pop personas like Lana Del Rey. These pop stars reflect these themes musically, underpinning the bright, sugary, euphoric rush of crisp beats and perfect pop harmonies with gritty, industrial-ized elements, that sound more like a subterranean rave than a red carpet gala.
Considering how tempting it is to make a standard pop record and then dirty it up with some gritty beats and textures to appear “edgy”, an album that still strikes that critical equilibrium between pop and personal tragedy is cause for celebration, and an invitation to listen closely, reading between the lines for what’s really going on.
Nothing speaks of personal tragedy quite so much as a breakup record. Its a nearly universal human experience, that tends to bring out the rawest, realest aspects of the human condition —jealousy, insecurity, revenge, bitterness, regret, sadness, sometimes even ecstasy—.
Especially when the couple breaking up are playing in the same band.
Not only did Synesthetica, the third LP from Portland Radiation City, nearly cause the heart of Radiation City – singer/keyboardist Lizzy Ellison and guitarist Cameron Spies – to call off their engagement, the peril-fraught long-player nearly ended the band all together. Coming three years after the mediocrely-received Animals In The Median, the band struggled with insecurity, writer’s block, and indecision, before finally erupting into a catherine wheel of creativity.
Synesthetica is Radiation City’s tightest album to date, despite the initial tracking being undertaken by only half the band. Radiation City are the living, musical embodiment of the dichotomy that is Portland. On one hand, it is straight, vintage, retro-worship, with the band’s vocal admiration of ’60s smooth bossa nova jams, that would go on to inspire other freaky beatniks like Stereolab or Broadcast, which are also pertinent touchstones.
In the case of Stereolab and Broadcast, however, it was still considered avant-garde and cutting-edge to pillage thrift store vinyl bins, before they were outsourced to Instagram and Etsy. In the ’90s and early ’00s, it was controversial to simply sound “psychedelic”, as the rest of the world fell under pop’s modernist spell; subscribed to hip-hop’s militant zeal, or were enraptured by rave/EDM’s techno-utopian zeal.
The pendulum swung back -hard- however, as the 2000s saw a flood of freak folk bands, and other modern day hippies choosing to ignore the cracking foundations of the world around us, in favor of a pair of rosy-lensed circle Janis Joplin shades.
Nostalgia became poison, basically – another tool of escapism, another way to live in delusion as Rome burns.
Radiation City, from the get-go, have always been sharper and more well-thought-out than your usual pop cultural revisionist. With Syneshtetica, the band have updated their sound with a slightly more ’80s bent, layering their spectral psychedelic ballroom sound with a kind of abstract, floating synthpop quality, that will leave you feeling like dancing beneath the stars for all eternity.
That’s the best thing about the album. It may be mired in misery, but you’d never it from listening (until you start listening between the lines, of course). Sonically, Synesthetica is 39 minutes of the most graceful, artfully-executed Disco, like album opener “Oil Show”, slow-jams (“Butter”), and bleepy soul (“Milky White”), expertly captured by indie pop genius John Vanderslice, at Tiny Telephone Studios. Vanderslice is best known for recording Death Cab For Cutie and Spoon, both of which are good examples of what Synesthica is going for —sharp, artful, expertly—executed Pop music with experimental, avant-garde filigree.
Hearing Lizzie Ellison turned up in the mix is one of the greatest thing to come from Synesthica‘s tumultuous origins. Ellison has had one of the strongest blue-eyed soul voices in Indie Rock for years. It’s about time that people know it.
Cameron Spies is well-presented, also, as the other half of Radiation City’s radioactive heart, with sweet and soulful ballads like the silken “Come And Go”.
All in all, Synesthica is an almost 50/50 split between pain and pleasure. These 9 songs are some of the sweetest, most infectious dancefloor anthems you’ll hear this year. Understanding the backstory isn’t necessary to get down and lose yourself, as Pop music has always helped us do. There’s a depth and true heart to this record that rewards late-night and headphone listening, as well, truly bridging the pop and the personal.
You can get the LP at Bandcamp
-words by J. Simpson