Cale Parks’ latest EP and third solo release To Swift Mars takes the sonic cues and flourishes of ‘80s synthpop and refracts them through a lens of fin de siècle discontent, with a result that bears a degree of resemblance to new wave influences Depeche Mode and the Smiths, but might be more accurately described as the distilled sound of ‘80s nostalgia.
Parks, a prodigious Brooklyn multi-instrumentalist previously associated with indie rock bands Aloha and White Williams, has given listeners six songs in twenty-seven minutes. There’s a sense of impatience that results, partly a function of the musical content, run through with a muted restlessness that fleshes out the EP’s pretty consistent themes of longing and disappointment. But it’s also an effect of the EP’s composition: treading lightly, its tracks featuring solid percussive cores with melodies spread thinly over the surface like frosting on a layer cake. To Swift Mars covers surprisingly many bases within a fairly short window of time, but for variety’s sake the EP sacrifices some of the fullness that characterizes its influences. Opening track “Eyes Won’t Shut” features echoes of Toto, Tears For Fears et al—aquatically cerebral synth, insistently catchy electronic drumbeat, and a gorgeous, gaudy, glittery sheen—but falls short of the immersive, wall-of-sound-ish depth that it seems to be stretching for.
As a vocalist, Parks’ default setting is one of understatement and restraint, and he has trouble leaving his comfort zone when his musical aims require it. “Eyes that wouldn’t shut / They could never get enough”, he sings, “You were here / You were gone / It had never done more harm”. He’s trying to convey feelings of loss, but his indifferent delivery deflates the sentiment, reducing it to a complaint. Glossy ‘80s aural embellishments, which are pretty abundant by the end of the song, don’t necessary help.
Parks is more endearing on “Running Family”, where he allows his natural nonchalance to work for him. Beginning with muted drumbeat and subdued keyboards, the track places us into a dispassionate, chilly emotional space before raising the heat with the introduction of urgent synthesizers, evocative of sirens, impressing upon us a swelling sense of alarm. Again, it feels like Depeche Mode, but without any of Dave Gahan‘s characteristic vamping.
Following is the standout “Knight Conversation”, an organ-driven duet that ditches the forced new wave gestalt to affect a sweeter, Arcade Fire-style vibe. Its contemporary sound seems fresher, if only because its influences are less conspicuous. Ditto for “One at a Time”, a grainy synth-heavy toe-tapper that inhabits a kind of Dandy Warhols/LCD Soundsystem space but still feels enough like its own creation. Maybe as listeners we don’t have enough retrospective distance on ’00s indie pop to spot and pin down its trappings, and have yet to see its trademark sounds calcify into clichés. But even if we’ll consider songs like “Knight Conversation” to be genre specimens in 20 years, at present listen the track strikes me as simply a lovely song, and the EP’s high point to boot.
But in defense of Parks’ retro-appropriating tendencies, To Swift Mars’ final track “We Can Feel It” makes a close second place, taking the electronic affectations of the first two tracks and giving them compelling urgency and momentum. It’s a rousing balance of old and new, one of a handful of times when you feel clearly that the music is taking you somewhere. Not out of this world, maybe, but swiftly enough.
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