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'Pool': A Poppy Meditation On Emptiness

4 Stars

Courtesy of Domino Records
As an album, “Pool” is aptly named; it echoes its subject from many perspectives, capturing in its emotional range not only the empty scintillation of the nighttime pool rager but also its converse: The quiet, inescapable desolation that comes only from sitting alone in a pool lounger during the dead, flat heat of summer. Porches’ sophomore effort is both danceable and dispirited, managing to lodge itself into that oft-reached for intersection between fun and weariness.

In “Pool,” Porches move squarely into synth-pop territory, abandoning many of the indie-rock trappings of their 2013 debut, “Slow Dance in the Cosmos.” The soundscapes of “Pool” are, as a rule, much less reliant on bass licks and guitar riffs than are those of “Slow Dance,” showcasing frontman and founder Aaron Maine’s expanded repertoire of auditory tools. However, it doesn’t yet feel as though his evident proficiency has matured into mastery. Maine’s musical tableaux, while thoughtfully constructed and fairly catchy, don’t carry the the same imprint of painstaking perfection and meticulous care that characterizes many rising stars of the up-and-coming atmospheric synth-pop genre: Tame Impala, in particular, comes to mind as the standard-bearer for this style of music. From the odd, asymmetrical synth crescendos and decrescendos of “Shape” to the slight atonality of “Be Apart,” Maine’s mixes all carry slight imperfections—musical oddities that induce in the listener a slight yet persistent sense of disharmony and unease.

That may be exactly the point. There’s a certain intentionality to the distinct tension present in “Pool.” While the album’s soundscapes are undeniably atmospheric in nature, their marked imperfections prevent the listener’s total immersion. The LP’s sound, while still being eminently listenable (even danceable), has a certain distorted analog flatness to it that forces the listener to take notice of the music. Maine’s highly versatile tenor sometimes adds to this effect, providing an anchor on distortion-heavy songs like “Shape,” but also often performs the opposite function on his more conventional mixes: His quasi-falsetto, alternatingly raw and autotuned warble on album opener, “Underwater,” is the song’s most distinctive and unsettling sonic ingredient.

Porches’ juxtaposition of uncomfortable pseudo-tension with upbeat, poppy tunes is echoed in the content of the songs themselves, which deal with themes of internal unease hidden amid bright, fun exteriors. The refrain of the song “Be Apart,” for instance, features Maine, backed by crooning collaborator Frankie Cosmos, yearning soulfully to be “a part of it all”: However, the song’s title implies that there’s more than one reading to this particular lyric. And on “Glow,” Maine decries his inability to actually resolve his issues: “I guess all that I can do / is try to stop thinking about you.”

On the whole, the album’s quality is quite high. There are a couple of numbers that feel a bit samey, “Glow” and “Mood” in particular. But that’s not to say that the album is lacking in standouts. “Car” is one, featuring a rolling, rock-inspired bass line blended into tonally flat, doppler effect-esque synth wails and guitar-ish electronic sounds that echo the quick back-and-forth of sirens. The song is a plaintive paean that uses the image of the car to discuss autonomy and originality; in it, Maine croons, “It tells me just how / I should really feel / Oh what a machine.” “Hour” is another winner, with its ragged drumline and industrial vibe, mixed with what sound like synthesized church bells. In it, Maine, backed by the choral harmonies of Frankie Cosmos, warbles “So in my stoner hour / Oh, how I float / Just wondering about her.”

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“Pool” is a mindfully executed, poppy meditation on emptiness and appearance, its themes granting a veneer of intentionality to its at-times imprecise soundscapes. Its tracks are upbeat, danceable, and thoroughly unsettling. Porches is a young band worth keeping an eye on—especially now that “Pool” is open for business.

—Staff writer Adriano O. Iqbal can be reached at adriano.iqbal@thecrimson.com.

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