Noise Pop 09: Odawas scores a synth-pop beauty with The Blue Depths
"Cinematic" is one the most overused adjectives in the music reviewer's lexicon, practically guaranteed to appear at the first sign of a Morricone-like expanse of sound. And yet, how else to describe The Blue Depths (Jagjaguwar), the lush new album by Odawas steeped in the stormy synth scores of Vangelis (Blade Runner) and Joe Serra (The Big Blue)?
Meeting the duo for a beer in Berkeley, where they've recently relocated from Chicago, the talk was as likely to turn on a scene from Neil Jordan's film Mona Lisa (1986) as the baroque night flights of Scott Walker. "There was actually a [keyboard] setting I used on the demos called 'Movie Soundtrack,'" vocalist Michael Tapscott confesses, though his partner Isaac Edwards' glacial arrangements plunge deeper than any prefab setting. "I'm not an engineer or programmer by any stretch of the imagination," Edwards tells me, "but that's exactly what I was doing on this album. A lot of it was me doing things you're not supposed to do with the synthesizer."
The duo's first two records indulged concept album excess, but for The Blue Depths they made a conscious effort to have each of the songs stand on its own before embedding it into the swirling synth architecture that Edwards repeatedly describes as a "world." It worked: the hooks of "Harmless Lover's Discourse" and "Swan Song for the Humpback Angler" lodge in your brain for days, but the actual listening experience is submerged in the narrative of the arrangements the way a Neil Youngish harmonica rises from the mists of "Moonlight/Twilight," for instance, or how a processed guitar lead punctures the drifting "Secrets of the Fall."
Tapscott and Edwards first met at Indiana University, bonding, appropriately enough, over film reviews: Tapscott was an editor of the school paper and took a shine to Edwards' taste in movies. Neither had experience in other bands before Odawas, perhaps providing some of the innocence required to skip straight to crafting epic recordings.
The desire to set out over unknown terrain underlies the duo's name, which has autobiographical resonance for Tapscott. "When I was little, my family would spend summers up in northern Michigan, and off in the distance of the lake there was an island named Beaver Island," he explains. "We'd take our little blow-up raft out, but it was 20 miles away, and we were never going to get there. And that's where the Odawa [tribe] lives, on Beaver Island.... It's a nod to the distortion of childhood memory."
When I talked to M83's Anthony Gonzalez last spring about his John Hughesinspired album Saturdays=Youth (Mute, 2008), he drew similar parallels between daydream memories and imaginary soundtracks. Who knows what dizzying heights Odawas might reach in their new home by the Bay, where movie love is nothing but a case of Vertigo.
With Port O'Brien and Dame Satan
Fri/27, 9 p.m., $13
Café Du Nord
2170 Market, SF