Chris Letcher is an ambitious young South African musician, and his sophomore follow up Spectroscope reflects that. Spectroscope is 10 beautifully lush tracks (and two ridiculously pretentious ones) that run the gamut of alterna-pop-rock to experimental sparse piano ballads. It doesn’t always work, but you are always intrigued with what has guided this impressive college-friendly go-getter. Chris released his debut full-length Frieze back in 2007 to glowing reviews and an abundance of college radio airplay. One EP later and Letcher has released this chaotic and intricate follow-up.
Spectroscope begins with the rhythm heavy pop-esque number “The Sun! The Sun!” where he sings: “I slept in the sun, I slept in the sun / I sunk all the clocks until there were none / Colour of bricks, the colour of sand / (The sun! The sun!) / Colour of it in everything / I know without you I’m lost / (Wanna be the one I don’t wanna be the one).” He’s definitely bordering on the artsy side of pop with tracks that showcase a rarity of poeticism in their lyrics. Instead of opting for the easy route through his songwriting, Letcher is more concerned with the beauty of his words and how they reflect upon the instrumentation and melodic structure. Pretentious? Definitely. But it’s not always disingenuous. You can often times get over the fact that he’s probably trying to appeal to the Pitchfork reviewers who have yet to review his music, and just sit back and enjoy the minutiae he’s layered into some of his tunes.
The album begins strong. Traveling through the infectiously catchy “The Sun! The Sun!” to equally stunning “The Loneliest Air” and “T-Fins”. What in the world are these songs about you ask? Well, “The Loneliest Air” details the profound loneliness one can feel when they’ve reached a status of infamy – well intentioned individuals who are ultimately doomed to be the social scapegoat. But it’s a love song…sort of. I have no idea what in the world “T-Fins” is about. There are inklings of loneliness and solace, but with lines like: “Look here I’m steady now / My brain a cloudless day / Got no voice in my ear / Just a monotone / A hollow telephone / Marrow he stole from your bones” it’s anyone’s guess. Not to mention that the intro to “T-Fins” comes four tracks later!?
“T-Fins” is, unfortunately, where most of the pop stops (it does slightly reappear on the wonderfully retro “Phone Booth”). From here on in Letcher embarks on a more “experimental” landscape that was most likely meant to highlight his diverse musical approach. It’s occasionally stunning, and usually interesting, but more than anything confusing and inaccessible. You want to like it, perhaps more than you do. It’s a tough listen that requires more from the listener than your average album these days. The album feels like it’s missed its era. You can’t help but feel that an album like Spectroscope would have launched Letcher into stardom back in the ‘90s when such experimental introspection was considered cutting edge. No doubt that his electro-Nick Drake track “I’m New Here” would have eaten up the hearts of so many “quirky” teenage girls. Unfortunately, for both him and us, the ‘90s are over and all one can hope for these days from “cutting-edge” artistry is a grooving beat and an occasionally unpredictable melody line. Introspective feelers need not apply.
Letcher doesn’t seem to be unaware of this current musical reality, because he does his best to layer his tunes with all the twists and turns that are expected of any and all indie darlings – just listen to the over-inflated “Seeing Things” if you don’t believe me. It’s a catchy enough tune, meant to get your head bobbing long enough before he throws in as many sounds and noises to throw you off beat, ending with nothing less than a seven second orchestral swell that appears nowhere else on the tune. As affected as “Seeing Things” gets though, the ability to enjoy it despite his “I’m-being-arty” approach to songwriting, is still feasible. This is where that ability ends though. “One Died” is so aggravatingly pretentious that it has no place on what is essentially a pop album. The track is a setting of a Robert Berold poem of the same name. I know. It sounds as bad as it sounds. Once the five minute and 19 second long ego stroke is done (if you get all the way to the end), you are bombarded by another five-minute-plus “experimental” tune that sounds like an overblown cover version of the THX theme you hear before watching a film in the theatre. I’m sure these last two tracks were meant to showcase the singer’s complex musical abilities, but with their complete lack of accessibility, who cares?
This isn’t to say that Letcher’s abilities aren’t impressive, because they definitely are, but on a pop record, these tracks stand out as the most inappropriate sore thumbs. He’d probably fare better if he designed a full-length record of “experimental” tunes rather than placating his self-indulgent tendencies by passing them off as significant inclusions on already musically complex album. The songs bring the house of cards he’s been setting up through Spectroscope tumbling down, leaving the listener with a sour taste, which is unfortunate because the first 10 tracks would have made for one of the best indie albums of the year.
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