The Hands That Take You
(Tender Loving Empire)
US: 27 Sep 2011
UK: 27 Sep 2011
Radiation City started as a friendship between singer/keyboardist Lizzy Ellison and guitarist/vocalist Cameron Spies. Before they started the band, the pair founded a DIY record label, Apes Tapes, which releases music only on cassette. As a band, Radiation City seems to draw from a similar outmoded aesthetic. It’s tough to tell if Ellison and Spies (along with bassist Matt Rafferty and drummer Randy Bemrose), actually love the ‘60s genres they’re drawing from, or if they’re adopting elements of bossa nova, the close harmonies of classic Brazilian pop, and gauzy dream-pop vocals simply because it hasn’t been tried by anyone for a while. I suppose the intentions don’t matter as much if the results are good. It’s when the results are poor that people start to ask questions. On Radiation City’s debut album, the results are decidedly middling, which of course just raises further questions.
The Hands That Take You opens with a quiet kick drum beat, accompanied by a percussive rhythm featuring a series of snaps and handclaps, while Ellison softly coos “Do you remember / I remember” Eventually the song, “Babies”, coalesces into something a little more upbeat, with a more hard-hitting syncopated rhythm. But there’s a laid-back, dreamy quality to the entire track that works nicely. Problems arise because much of the album has that same dreamy, mid-tempo feel. It often seems like The Hands That Take You is one long song with some slight variations along the way; the production choices and track order do the album no favours. Second song “The Color of Industry” has some nice flourishes, like a wonderful harmonized brass interlude followed by an acoustic guitar solo. But the band also makes the decision to turn Ellison’s entire lead vocal into a close, three-part harmony that quickly starts to feel oppressive.
It goes on like this throughout the album. Every interesting songwriting or arranging choice the band makes seems to be accompanied by a separate, questionable choice. “The Things You Tell Us” could be a slow, jazzy torch song that spotlights Ellison’s ability to do a melancholy lead vocal. But then she slurs her words, which, combined with the production choice to put her vocals right in the middle of the mix, makes the lyrics almost unintelligible. “Summer Is Not An Act 1” works solely in the chorus, when the distractingly synthetic-sounding snare drum that keeps the beat through the rest of the song is absent. The band hits pay dirt with the heavy Latin feel that makes the appropriately-named “Salsaness” maybe the album’s only danceable track. But then they follow it up with “Park”, a noisy attempt to rock out featuring Spies on lead vocals that, weirdly, only comes alive in the middle when Radiation City gets really quiet and drops the distorted guitars and moog-style synths.
The band’s biggest success comes with “Mammals”, a song that combines all of their predilections in oddball ways. Spies once again takes the lead vocal here, and the harmonized refrain of “Got no plants only mammals coming after me / It’s the ease of living that’s devouring me!”, accompanied by the entire band thumping along on the beat, is weird in all the right ways. The band also pulls out synthetic drum and keyboard sounds again here to much better effect than earlier on the album. The Hands That Take You essentially ends with “Construction”, a song that recalls early ‘60s pop hits like “Earth Angel” with its slow 6/8 beat and jangly guitar tone. Ellison finally gets the chance to open up and belt it in the song’s last minute as she croons “This’ll be!” again and again over a long fade-out. And then the band has to go and blunt the impact of that fade-out by including an 80-second reprise of “Summer Is Not An Act” to finish out the album. Interesting choice, questionable choice. That’s how it goes for Radiation City. The band is supposedly already at work on their second album; maybe they’ll make more interesting choices and less questionable ones the next time out.
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// Notes from the Road
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