Final Fantasy

He Poos Clouds

(Tomlab; 2006)

By Amir Nezar | 4 October 2007

“Are you serious?” you might ask. If you’re not familiar with Owen Pallett, and given to take names and album titles as at least some sort of connotative indicators, this is an album by a super-nerd recorded in his basement on a Casio, with a rudimentary electric guitar, engendered by the kind of obsessive video game that makes him exude a strange electronic glow from excessive exposure to a TV screen. He probably also has carpel tunnel.

And then you find out that this is a classicist’s arrangement of ten songs for a chamber music ensemble. Never mind the questions about lawsuits, this is stuff written for a fucking chamber music ensemble?

Yes, and it’s quite good. Idiosyncratic to a high degree, He Poos Clouds is deeply and strikingly well written, texturally complex, and unarguably accomplished. “If I Were a Carp” unites aching strings with tense plucks, against which floats Pallett’s anxiously pretty vocals. “->” paces itself like the soundtrack to an urban Victorian love affair, swelling and releasing with voluminous strings in harmonic swoons, backgrounded by subtle piano ascensions. Late in the song, diminished chords tip-toe down the stairs as tautly-wound strings strike a dissonant heart-stop, leaving the track balanced on a tense razor-wire. The lover has run off, and the left-behind strain their neck with resignation.

“I’m Afraid of Japan,” focuses, appropriately, on heavily percussive Eastern drum circles and patterns, around which Pallett’s voice flits until beautifully restrained violin trills and string plucks play for a while and bring him back into the mix. And “Do You Love?” injects a bit of theremin intrigue into a gently pattering track, spattering the track with atonal vocal shouts.

It’s difficult to argue with the compositional bravado behind the album, and lyrically, Pallett hits the mark with deeply disturbing suicidal wrecks trying not to trip over the edge of the cliff. But there’s something highly hermetic involved in the flawlessly clean arrangements, which at once jar with the psychologically tumultuous lyrical states involved, and seem inappropriately brief given the album’s efficient 37 minute run-time. The devastating emotional states of Pallett’s characters don’t mesh with the charmingly light plucks and string swoons that surround them. Not that the quality of the music itself is really diminished, so much as the collision of genres wrought by Pallett – between classicist impulses and pop catchiness – is a bit sonically uncomfortable.

Each of these genres benefits in terms of their sounds from the parameters in which they sit; pop derives strength from layering and hooks, briefly enacted, capable of fracture, interesting because of it; and classical pieces derive impact from the hypnosis conjured by long evolutionary developments within song structure and tone. To take the elements and compositional difficulty of classical instrumentation and apply it to a pop setting creates an effect that’s not so much bad as it is disorienting – impressive but ever-so-slightly self-conscious and gimmicky. It’s like children’s choirs doing Rolling Stones’ songs. Pallett proves he’s got hefty songwriting chops, but embeds them – and his chosen alias, album title, and joking song titles seem to reinforce the conclusion – in flippant novelty. Does it take away from the musical quality? Not really. But the move does set He Poos Clouds (it’s hard to get over that, isn’t it?) up within the parameters of curiosity, so that the cleverness involved, and the talent displayed, is nearly overshadowed by the words “pet project.” Not taken too seriously by Pallett, and as a result, a little bit difficult to take seriously by a listener. “Ah but that’s the point,” you might say. And I would say, sure, but see what that does to replay value.