Pop Winds

Earth to Friend

(Arbutus Records; 2012)

By Calum Marsh | 15 May 2012

Pop Winds do not make pop music. They never did, not really, but on their last record they at least attempted to reign in their decidedly experimental sprawl, to transform what were essentially psychedelic soundscapes into song-sized nuggets both tidy and controlled. Hence, I think, the (quite glorious) burst of horns that kicked-off “Owl Eyes,” which sounded enough like Animal Collective circa “My Girls” to brand them pale imitators to many. These guys told me once that they felt The Turquoise was “doomed/destined” to be compared to Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009), and insofar as their debut married psych expanse to unabashedly catchy hooks, the perpetual comparisons were fair. But there are worse things to be compared to than Animal Collective at what was arguably their prime, and the Pop Winds guys mimicked that sensibility so efficiently that the results were still immensely satisfying on their own.

It was enough, in any case, to earn them a place on our list of the Top 50 Albums of 2010, and it was more than enough to earn them feelings of sadness and regret when we learned that, whether by conflict or circumstance, their next album would be the Pop Winds’ last. Even indebted to betters they were too good to die so soon.

Pop Winds played their final gig last July, and the guys have been busy since—Kyle Jukka has been working under the moniker Flow Child, and Devon Welsh, most notably, has been building an enviably reputation of his own as Majical Cloudz, who delivered one of the standout track’s on this year’s Visions, by labelmate Grimes. So they’re all getting along just fine. But they had a final album in them, and that album, called Earth to Friend, has finally arrived via Arbutus Records. Just the fact that it’s tragically the final Pop Winds record gives us cause enough to resent its existence; that it’s a considerably more confident and assured album than its predecessor is even more depressing. Earth to Friend is the sound of a band finding their voice—a great album, yeah, but more importantly what should be their first great album of many. It’s a frustrating discovery.

Take, for example, “Easier,” an album highlight. Where The Turquoise had obvious, gut-punching highlights (and, therefore, relative lowlights), Earth to Friend is vastly more consistent and coherent, and a track like “Easier” is, well, easier to admire as simply one engaging part of a solid whole. That’s partly a consequence of a shift in approach: their experimental tendencies no longer tempered and their pop sensibilities no longer strained or overextended, these songs are granted the freedom to stretch out and, when necessary, to meander aimlessly, and that free-form expressionism emerges as one of the album’s most rewarding qualities. This is, to lean on a bit of critical cliche, music to get lost in; though pop hooks still abound, pop structures have been cast off entirely—the hooks turn up only as part of something more nebulous and free.

Thus the central hook found on “Sight”—a resigned “It always ends in doubt / It wears me out,” which, though perhaps a breakup lament, is as accurate a description of the creative process as I’ve ever heard—is the song’s focus but not its anchor, which means the band is free to play around with it, moving somewhere else for a horn flourish and then an instrumental bridge and back to it again before devolving completely in its last minute-plus into a bit of a jam session. Like Grimes, Pop Winds have no problem laying into a completely conventional-sounding pop hook when it feels necessary, but they never confine themselves to the traditional limitations of the form. The result is infectious but washed out, hooky but vaguely defined. And as The Turquoise did before it, Earth to Friend just sounds phenomenal, a sumptuous production lined with glitter and glam. (The record was produced by Matthew Otto, though it should be noted that elsewhere Welsh has proven himself to be a preeminently talented producer, too; I’d love to hear either crank out a hip-hop beat or two, especially in the age of 40 and the Weeknd.)

So it’s all very well and good. Earth to Friend is a great album, though it might have been easier to digest had it been a let down—as it stands, we’re left to mourn the loss of a band that barely left a legacy. It hardly seems fair.