The ballad of Michael Silver goes something like this. He’s a baby-faced producer from Montreal, barely in his 20s, for whom fame seemed to come sort of easily. First, he won a remix contest by applying the Keyboard of Nostalgia to Crystal Castles’ bleepy, bratty “Air War”, effectively taking one kind of blog-friendly track and turning it into another. Next, he received remix commissions from HEALTH, the Teenagers, Hearts Revolution, and Sally Shapiro, whose decision to give Disco Romance’s “Time to Let Go” to Silver produced a hell of a pop song and one of the most natural personnel pairings in leftfield dance. His sound is…well shit, it’s trendy, a combination of Air’s francophilic odysseys and the early-‘80s European disco featured on Morgan Geist’s Unclassics. And how about Silver’s stage name, CFCF? You can name-drop it, you can Google it without too much hassle, and it looks sexy in a sidelong sort of way. I don’t really know how to explain it.
The name CFCF, I assume, was derived from the large Canadian TV station whose call letters stand for “Canada’s First, Canada’s Finest”, and that isn’t such a bad way to think about what Silver is doing, even if he is not Canada’s first nor arguably its finest. Instead, he almost seems to be rewriting the book on how Canadian music is perceived. There’s an air of high-mindedness about much of it, as when Broken Social Scene and Fucked Up emulate six of the year’s best records playing at once, and even a gentle electronic act like Montag can’t shake the conception that it wants to be more erudite than enjoyable. Not so CFCF. Contrary to rumor, but consistent with the evidence, Silver took his time and set no deadlines for Continent’s completion, which meant that he could wait around for inspiration as it struck him. And so, by the artist’s volition, the record ended up being about inspiration, about journeying to find it, and about the intermittent activation of mood and emotion on the journeys we take.
That’s not to say that Continent isn’t full of brainy pop culture references. According to Silver, the guardian angels of the record’s atmosphere are Werner Herzog, Michael Mann and David Cronenberg. Continent’s second song, “Big Love”, is a heavy-lidded, mid-tempo cover of Fleetwood Mac. Probably the most culturally loaded moment is “Invitation to Love”; not only does the title reference the meta-show in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, but the track is also a tribute to Quiet Village’s “Pillow Talk” (2007), which itself is a cover of the Alan Parsons Project’s “Voyager” (1978)—or maybe Silver bypassed the Quiet Village connection altogether. References are interesting sometimes, but what’s much more striking going into this universe is how clean everything looks. There isn’t a note, a beat, an instrument or a maneuver that sounds as if it doesn’t belong smack dab in its very spot. I imagine Silver meticulously laid out the blueprints and did a lot of trimming in all that time he afforded himself, so instead of going to Timbuktu, he created what is essentially a pop/rock record in electronic’s clothing. The trip to this Continent feels remarkably disciplined, with Silver demonstrating the kind of restraint that usually takes two or three albums to achieve (see the xx for another beautiful example).
But the shining bullet point on Silver’s resume might be this: On his debut record, he owns a signature sound. Granted, he’d released half a dozen remixes and the Panesian Nights EP before it, but this isn’t why Continent felt nothing like a debut upon its release in late 2009. It’s because Silver is confident in his tools, mostly vintage analogue synthesizers or what passes for them digitally nowadays, and he adheres to them with such genuine enthusiasm that it’s hard not to be as taken with his methodology as he is. Though his forebears are familiar and several popular-ish acts (Javelin, Glass Candy) have plowed this plot of land before, you can pick out a CFCF song when you hear it. With a few exceptions, like the lovely blissout interlude “Summerlong”, the keys are always synthetic and exploratory, the rhythms never deviate from a drawn-out thump, the pop circumscription is followed to the letter and a certain shading keeps the melodies from shining directly in the eyes. If you factor in the notion that artists want remixers who can put their personal stamp on a track and satisfy both parties’ needs to express themselves, CFCF’s job prospects sure look bright.
Here’s the problem. Continent is so well-planned, so devoid of errancies and so fixated on doing everything right that, truthfully, most of it just bored me to tears. The panpipes in “Letters Home” clearly indicate the intention to whisk us someplace exotic, but against the calculated backdrop it’s as if we’re watching a travel program on television rather than going anywhere. In other words, the album is about a journey without being a journey in and of itself. That’s the thing, too, about mood, emotion, inspiration, and everything Silver was hoping Continent would convey: They’re naturally occurring phenomena, often with strange and unexplained catalysts. Where’s the danger here, the thrill of surprise? I don’t see it, and because of that, the unease that is in some sense the essence of “moody” experience isn’t communicated. Michael Silver put an incredible amount of effort into Continent, and unfortunately, it shows. To make money, all he has to do is stick around; the young man has a brand already, whether he wants one or not. To achieve his paramount goals and completely bowl us over, he needs to risk screwing up.