[29 November 2010]
Indie rock has gone through something of a facelift in recent years. There’s been an increasing prolificacy of prettiness in buzz bands, from Grizzly Bear and chillwave to Merriweather Post Pavilion and Sufjan Stevens. This isn’t just the longstanding ‘90s-ish fascination with twee—these bands aren’t interested in sounding cute, but actually ethereally beautiful. They’re focused on uplift, of sweeping melodies and flowing endorphins. Punk’s not dead, but its distant offshoots are wearing eyeshadow and blush in a way more like Scarlett Johansson than David Bowie.
Philadelphia’s Sun Airway offers a case in point on Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier. The band, a quintet live but on record a duo comprised of songwriters Jon Barthmus and Patrick Marsceill, traffics in gently danceable programmed beats, layers of synths, and Barthmus’s firm and confident vocals. The results are, in a word, pretty. The overdubs of his breathy singing on tracks like “Swallowed by the Night” recall the effortless harmonies of Panda Bear, but with none of Noah Lennox’s surfer dude vocal affectations. It’s less Brian Wilson, more—well, something else. Critics have repeatedly pointed to a strange similarity in Barthmus’s voice with that of Julian Casablancas, and the comparison fits. Like the Strokes frontman, Barthmus can move from a throaty near-baritone to an easy tenor (and, why not, a crystalline falsetto) with no complaints from his register.
If reviews focus on Barthmus’s vocals, it makes sense. His performance on Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier consistently impresses without ever seeming showy. The “oo-oo” refrain on “Waiting on You” scratches the perfect center of an itch for pop, while his yearning yelps on “Actors” sound like the Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser if the latter gave up cigarettes and whiskey. “We’ve got our friends”, he sings, “we know they’ve been there all along”, and where Leithauser can flawlessly sell barbed jabs of resentment in his delivery, Barthmus wrings true sentiment from his simple, joyful lyrics.
Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier is a feel good record, genuine in all the ways that a beautiful composition should be. Musically, its densely layered production surrounds its audience with a wall of sound, but one about as far away from the acerbic attitude of Phil Spector as one could get. Try listening to “Shared Piano” and not feeling charmed. On that song and most of its sisters here, percussion and swirling keys blend together in a delectably sweet mixture that never seems saccharine. It bears emphasizing that, however ethereal its heights may be, Nocturne is explicitly not background music. It packs a punch when it so desires—“Infinity”, “American West”, and “Put the Days Away” all deliver driving hooks and a contagious energy. This is the type of record people release to the thirsty masses in the height of the summer, but Sun Airway has done us a favor by holding off until winter, when we could really use the warmth.