Spectrum, 14th Century / Plays To Please EP
(Blocks Recording Club / States Rights Records/Slender Means Society; 2008)
By Dom Sinacola | 24 October 2008
As with the charming company he keeps, Owen Pallett treats his influences like a turkey dinner, first glutting on the skin and then picking his teeth with a rib bone. His output has mostly been wispy chamber pop arranged for his friends and—some might say for self-absorbed reasons—for himself, but the form he only exploits for the obvious tension at its core: three or four classically trained, young, attractive musicians, white probably, sitting in a small space making art that must at some point bend to the art of another person in the tiny room. Then Pallet domesticizes the music by pitching his fey tenor over the whole proceeding, poking fun, but never too much fun, and dropping a fat hock of hierarchy in the lap of any player to ever join Pallett in that white room where magic happens. Final Fantasy, then, is untenably one-sided; I happen to be on the side of Andrew Bird and Zach Condon and that one adorable chump from Hidden Cameras. It’s not a very convincing side, but it’s vigorously sexually active and everyone else is jealous.
The challenge, that said, is how to prequalify my adoration for what, in total, I believe Owen Pallett to be currently up to. Spectrum, 14th Century is an EP that acts as any EP will, offering a vague prelude to the oncoming LP. Pallett’s is Heartland and if accounts add up, the album will spin a bombastic and probably stymieing story about a religious boy on a journey through Spectrum, a mythos-rich land of Pallett’s lofty creation. His picaresque has the indelible power to suck, but the Spectrum EP, supposedly an episodic prologue legitimized as fake legend when Pallet promised to refer to the EP’s happenings in the bigger (and I’d think more contemporary) Heartland piece, makes the edacious prospect seem rich. It’s a stretch, of course, to assume I’d react any differently, being that listening to Final Fantasy is like ordering a pizza with delivery coupon bunched in hand—knowing that what I get will be made for me, but Spectrum, 14th Century is without reservation what Owen Pallett should be making, or should be implying, at this point in his band’s lifespan.
Each song is a clever yarn in its own right, filled out by a decidedly stentorian Beirut band, outside creating faux “field recordings” in the middle of a, um, field, but more than any other point in his long affair in public recognition, Pallett is sedately not the center of the suite. His every move’s tender, his restraint seductive. Though, in Spectrum, “Owen” is like Jesus and “Final Fantasy” like God, to make the comparison simple, the conceit’s charged with self-awareness, even loneliness. Before “Cockatrice” loses its conch shell percussion, a sole violin, unusually absent from most of the tracks surrounding, sweeps like clean linen over the song’s bridge; the move’s pulled not two minutes earlier in “The Butcher,” and behind both moments Pallet’s voice is mixed reverently, plaintively: first he prays, “The crack / Where is the crack? / When did I crack?” and then pleads, “Owen, Owen protect me / From a life everlasting.” They’re tender moments in an otherwise splashy telecast; the 14th century, or at least the end of it, sounds more like the dying of the McCarthy era than something deliciously medieval.
As Pallet plays it, Spectrum was, long ago, facing eschatological fallout and its denizens, from farmer to flake, penitent to prostitute, were seeking someone to act, for lack of a better title, as a messiah. Pallett’s protagonist, though loosely characterized and diced up between grammatical persons, seems to be at the mercy of, let’s say, religious obligations. He (don’t take these pronouns too seriously) must, at the behest of his duty to Final Fantasy and the doomed Spectrum, confront his potential, confront even the frivolous Parcae (or whatever the fates are to be called in Pallett’s imagination—probably scatological), to be an endtimes prophet, maybe even the messiah, sought by the once-devoted masses now stewing in the crap of apocalypse. Avoiding the temptation of Blue Imelda’s thighs—in true Magdalene couture “she’s the saddest bitch in all of Spectrum,” unable to satiate some deep urge that’s probably spiritual, left instead to play the predictable whore role for farmers who can only be farmers (“one eye on the pussy and the other on the plow”)—or walking frightfully through some old ruins and manic crowds with the Holy-Spirit-ish Owen at the nape of the neck, the characters of Spectrum, 14th Century live each fleeting day saturated by paranoia, wondering about true vocational duties and sanctified life plots. The details of Spectrum’s predominant, catholic doctrine of metaphysics matter as much as the identity of each song’s narrator, in other words, they matter very little: Pallett, we can assume, will later fill in the details, currently concerned with only mythologizing in tone—anachronism, sex, death, and dogma are the bread and butter of indie pop’s Joseph Campbell acolyte. And in the end the leftists lose. An EP, you could say, is only so broad.
Plays to Please, then, is some standard stuff for Final Fantasy, despite the whomping aid of the St. Kitts Orchestra (an expansion of the quartet credited within He Poos Clouds ) which, as alluded to above, is comprised of folks like Andrew Bird and members of the Hidden Cameras and Drumheller. Another wrench in the purportedly solipsistic machine of Owen Pallett is the EP’s intent: the disc is another entry in Slender Means Society’s Pregnancy series and, in turn, covers a series of Toronto singer-songwriter Alex Lukashevsky’s tunes. Lyrically, the two musicians battle similar urges—thou shalt not speak too vulgarly, shalt be blunt and include curlicue free verse—but Lukashevsky’s industrial-minded folk dourness is clearly incompatible with Pallett’s instinct. Final Fantasy is at home, only weeks after his previous EP’s release and, in opposition, its home-building, and Lukashevsky’s all but abandoned. Staccato strings plop and lilt throughout “Nun Or Bawd,” one nursery rhyme away from the same ole pizzicato; “Gonna get me a girlfriend and do whatever she says,” Pallett opens and the rest of the band replies like their effort is barely needed. It’s a big band Pallett’s got, positioned to sound huge and old, the vocals mixed close stage left, slightly off center so every player can sparkle in grainy technicolor. No surprise by this point: “Moodring Band” and “I Saved a Junky Once” build self-importantly on piano and the very strings that Pallet reserved so stoically before throughout Spectrum.
There’s the divide and it’s worth a gaping comment; Plays to Please is capitulation where Spectrum, 14th Century is a challenge. Both EPs are smiling, indulgent projects, threatening noxious tangents, one jaded weekend away from Kevin Barnes doody, but when you hold both to the light only Please appears veiny and jaundiced. Still, Owen Pallett is recycling ideas instead of recycling tones or aesthetics, allowing melodic themes to grow where before he would have salted his persona and dragged the rest to the end. He Poos Clouds is, turns out, gestation, now making the sense it never could when Pallett released it to premature acclaim. Pallet, probably, would like it if I told him that with a month’s worth of releases he was, in my mind, the current king and, if possible, savior of the EP; he also mentions The Hobbit in interviews. Loser.