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Passion Pit

Manners

(Frenchkiss; US: 19 May 2009; UK: Available as import)

Now that internet buzz has made a shift from passing phase to frontline for music promotion and criticism, it feels right when a band like Passion Pit gets caught in that whirlwind. Because despite its strength, the internet is still a young music forum, and all too often how artists receive that buzz relies far too much on the hyper trying to play tastemaker instead of on the merits of the hyped music itself.


But even before their debut EP, Chunk of Change, Passion Pit was building up some serious heat. They had a compelling backstory—that EP was recorded by frontman Michael Angelakos as a gift to his girlfriend—and an infectious sound to hook you with. And, as it turns out, they have a lot of life in them. Chunk of Change may have hinted at the success to come for this band, but it didn’t prepare us for the big, ambitious, bursting-at-the-seams electro-pop brilliance that is Manners. If the hype leading up to this release is any indication, the group could have the same huge following Postal Service had, and it would be much deserved.


Not that they sound anything like Postal Service, really. Like Ben Gibbard, Michal Angelakos doesn’t mind wearing his schmaltzy, lovelorn heart on his sleeve. And while he might sound a little melodramatic, his singing always feels earnest. And, unlike Postal Service’s cool metallic sound, Passion Pit plays like a band on fire, and their sound is all surging blood and frenzied joy, even when Angelakos sounds lost and lonely.


Much of the album is cluttered up and shimmering with synths and drums, but it steps outside of standard electro-pop sounds to up the energy on every track. “Make Light” is all swooping keys, but rests on a thick bed of guitar that sounds an awful lot like an echoed wall of notes via U2’s the Edge. “Moth’s Wings” starts with a proggy build-up of keys and guitars, before blooming with lush strings. “Sleepyhead”—the only carry-over from Chunk of Change and a perfect fit on this album—thumps grimily along, punctuated by sped-up soul samples and heavily-reverbed vocals.


Those are just some of the twists built into these songs, songs that refuse to stay still long enough for you to get a firm hold on them. Instead, these songs get a hold on you, swelling up and surrounding you with their sound, refusing to let you out. Even the unassuming plink and plunk of closer “Seaweed Song” eventually takes you over. It’s the most stripped-down track on the album, but only by default. And it’s drums still give the song a surging heart beat, and push the song to the breaking point whenever possible.


The band also seems to take advantage of their hometown sounds. Hailing from the Boston area—home to more than a few big names in the world of grit-toothed, angular indie rock—Passion Pit shares more than a passing resemblance to the tension built into that sound. Though they prefer synthesizers to crunchy guitars, those warm notes aren’t always swelling with comfort. On songs like “Moth’s Wings” and “The Reeling”, the notes do stretch out, but they also back-up on each other in clustered bleats. The handclaps and high-hat work on “Folds in Your Hands” plays at a rocking breakout that the band holds off on until the last possible moment. And while the live drums and healthy bass built into these hugely infectious songs keeps the album’s energy up, it’s the bands ability to smartly deny us those elements in certain spots that keeps our ears pricked for the next surprise.


And if the music itself didn’t pack enough joyful tension, Angelakos’ vocals do plenty of work in that arena. His histrionic falsetto, delivered with full-throated enthusiasm at every moment, sounds so wide-open and honest, and comes with a heavy dose of stadium-rocking charm, that he never feels whiny even as he delves deep into his own heartache. And he also has a subtle range to his voice. Though most of his singing is overheated and damp with sweat, he slows it to a ghostly keen on “Moth’s Wings” or high-register croon on “Eyes as Candles”. And sometimes he goes ahead and overdoes it, singing until he’s airless on the overblown verses of “Little Secrets”. But it works because Angelakos never sounds like he’s navel-gazing, because he mixes the heartworn words with the irrepressible joy he brings to performing. Even when his words breakdown into frustration—“Have you ever felt so goddamn strong?/ How comes it takes some people so damn long,” he shouts at one point—you can still picture him dancing at the mic stand, letting the music take over even as his heart sinks.


To point out standout tracks on this album is kind of futile, because any one of these 11 tracks could be a single. They are all that infectious and that distinct from one another. And despite their love of synth-pop, Passion Pit never fall into the genre rut of channeling the ‘80s. “To Kingdom Come” is the closest they get to that territory, as it could fit nicely in a John Hughes soul-searching montage. But the sound fits the songs heartache and nostalgia, even if Angelakos is wistful over a time that never happened, namely the time where he and the person he’s singing to were on the same page.


But that track aside, Manners is an album very much of its time. Steeped in the tense worry of economic hardship and transition, but loaded with an undeniable resilience, this album does what a lot of electro-pop does. It makes you want to dance, and it gets it hooks deep into, so much so that you might be humming the melodies to these songs mindlessly, before you even realize they’re Passion Pit. But what makes it not just a great genre album, but a great album period, is its ability to make you feel what the band feels, to immerse you in sound and mood and energy and never let you come up for air during its 45-minute running time. In short, that internet buzz machine—though still trying to shed its awkward infancy—definitely knocked this pick out of the park.

Rating:

Matthew Fiander is a music critic for PopMatters and Prefix Magazine. He also writes fiction and his work has appeared in The Yalobusha Review. He received his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from UNC-Greensboro and currently teaches writing and literature at High Point University in High Point, NC. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattfiander.


Media

Passion Pit - The Reeling
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