[20 November 2008]
The connection between location and music is a powerful one. Where music comes from often colors impressions before one actually hears it. Conversely, the music encountered while traveling comes after the traveler compiles impressions, however brief or unfair, of that location. Unfortunately, Brandon Bethencourt’s Alaska in Winter evokes a number of wonderful locales, but never sounds truly at home in any of them on Holiday.
Alaska in Winter continues to wraps itself in a romantic travelogue, one full of international hop-scotch and spot-the-influence hybridity of an artist unshackled from the 9-to-5 world. Someone free to roam, sponge up influences, and let them flow forth through the filter of an opened mind. These narratives expand over the course of Holiday in slow-motion, but threaten to overwhelm the otherwise fine chill permeating these tracks. The sonic reference points and the personal narrative that accompanies the promotional material of Alaska in Winter further these readings of the music. The story: Bethancourt moves from his home state of New Mexico and spends an Alaskan winter alone in a cabin making music inspired by the nature around him (hist first release Dance Party in the Balkans). Then he moved to Berlin where he’s absorbing house music, and his album art for Holiday looks straight out of an ‘80s Miami Vice promo. He collaborates with indie famous musicians like childhood friend Zach Condon and Heather Trost (A Hawk and a Hacksaw), who contribute once again on Holiday.
Bethancourt layers keyboards, vocoder-tinged vocals, and mechanized beats into expansive tracks that suggest a long journey across snowy tundra. He develops and maintains a consistent atmosphere over the course of Holiday, and his understated approach is an achievement in itself within a genre prone to overstatement. Moments reminded me of Krafwerk’s The Man-Machine, with the lush, yet emotionally cold synth magic. The atmosphere Bethancourt creates is frequently beautiful. Vocally, he opts for texture over enunciation and further imbues the tracks with a distant, tranquil quality, even in the face of more upbeat, driving tracks like “Speed Boat to Heaven”.
The bulk of the album produces a hypnotic lull that is at once comforting and danceable in sections. Daft Punk’s influence looms large over these 11 tracks, but the music often explores a middle ground without searching high or low. Alaska in Winter seem content to let a single hook stretch out over a plateau rather than attempt to change the contour of the land. This approach works on “Speed Boat to Heaven” because the hook lodges so easily in the brain, but is not terribly compelling over the course of a full-length album. “Knorrpromenade” begins promisingly with an off-kilter banjo that adds a welcome sense of strangeness, but the introduction of an overly familiar backbeat spoils the atmosphere.
In general, the predictability prevents this album from extending past congenial background music in a primetime soap, like so much “Your Red Dress” on Grey’s Anatomy. I mean, how many times within a single song can you drop out the snare beat, bring it back in, and expect the same impact? Sometimes this decision and other compositional choices seem arbitrary and given to late-night whims, the kind best left alone and reassessed in the morning before getting a tattoo of it. Bethancourt’s singular vision is generally too singular, while some tracks like “Streetgang Pt. 1” are closer to Enigma territory than anyone involved in this project would probably care to admit.
Holiday is like a taking a cruise. You see tantalizing glimpses of many different locations, but you don’t have a clear sense of anywhere you just went once you’ve returned home.