The success of the Postal Service has found more and more musicians plugging in their laptops to help in channeling their muse. We are leaving the era of Fender Stratocasters and Marshall amps and entering one of ProTools and Powerbook G5s. It’s not much of a surprise, then, that Brian Moss from the indie rock group The Ghost employs digital techniques to round out the songs of his first solo outing. Released under the moniker Hanalei, We Are All Natural Disasters pops and hisses with electronic glitches, aided by washes of guitar. And it is all coated under Moss’s earnest voice.
There are some distinctive differences that keep Hanalei from being yet another Postal Service or Styrofoam knock-off. First the production, by Lance Reynolds and Moss himself, pushes Moss’s voice to forefront. Unfortunately, his voice simply isn’t strong enough to be the primary sound of these songs. Another point of difference is the use of the live instruments. Hanalei has done an excellent job of mixing the organic and electronic without detracting from either. Five of the album’s 12 songs feature live drums and percussion, creating a vibrant, lively atmosphere that doesn’t always rely on electronic beats for propulsion.
So far, we have the ingredients for a good indie pop record, even with the dubious positioning of Moss’s voice in the mix. His vocal delivery, however, takes away much of the enjoyment that could be had on this album. Listening to We Are All Natural Disasters, one gets the feeling that Moss added the lyrics after the music was written. From the opening track “Action Drum” through the rest of the disc, Moss struggles to fit his words into the structured verses and choruses. He never seems to get comfortable within his own songs, and the vocal delivery feels hurried. Unlike the Postal Service, where breathy, relaxed, and subtly mixed vocals add as much texture to the songs as any of the programmed beats, Moss’s upfront, rushed style never relaxes enough to invite the audience in.
The album’s best tracks are the ones where Moss slows it down just a little. “Josh & Sarah’s Belated Wedding” and “Hopeful Hands” hit the mark Hanalei is going for and are graced by the lovely backing vocals of Eve Curtis. Moss is a gifted lyricist, and it’s refreshing that though his lyrics are personal, they aren’t transparently confessional.
Moss is a gifted songwriter, and musically these are some fine pop songs. Unfortunately, he has yet to master fitting his lyrics into the songs. We Are Natural Disasters isn’t the pop confection it aims to be, and in its worst moments feels like a work in progress. It’s often an unsettling listen, and only rarely approaches the atmosphere it works hard to cultivate. But those rare moments are enough to keep Hanlei on my radar. Moss has the tools, and it’s only a matter of time until he successfully wrangles his vocal prowess to fit his carefully constructed pop surroundings.