In a recent fit of nostalgia laced with masochism, I decided to listen again to Portishead’s Dummy and Julee Cruise’s Floating into the Night, two albums that seemed to define a slushy ‘90s techno-chanteuse aesthetic. I always thought both albums were dead boring, but also strangely compelling. They disturbed you at the same time they put you to sleep. And boy, did listening to them bring back memories. These discs were a demented form of pomo New Age for saintly hipsters who often used them as phony-sublime heavenly-angel tools of seduction. Before the Barry White revival (there was a Barry White revival, right?), Portishead was an ace tool for generating that bedroom heat.
I was shocked and delighted to find that the aesthetic is alive and well, and Park Avenue Sounds does a pretty fine job of carrying on the seduction. Their debut album, To Take with You, is a mellow, electronic, nebulous sequence of 10 torch songs (in 50 minutes) that shuffle past your eardrums very, very slowly. Chanteuse Jeannette Faith and handyman Wes Steed create a creeping universe of staid beats and empyreal vox, just like the good old days.
An album that’s long on atmosphere and short on content, To Take with You defies rational explication. And anyway, the oscillating melisma of Faith’s voice makes it really hard to hear the lyrics. The opening track, “Petals”, creates a joyous slow-thumping electro-climate, and the only line I can hear clearly is when Faith croons “I’ll always be in love . . . with you” at the end. I could swear she sings “I will always be naked” at some point, but that could just be my imagination running wild. It’s a nifty opener, and all the other songs echo it. Faith’s singing is clearly influenced by Olivia Newton-John—an innocent-sounding exhalation that occasionally swoops and soars, but doesn’t disguise its limitations. In a way, this is very cool: who needs the vocal pyrotechnics of a Björk or the epochal simplicity of a Beth Orton, when you can get some great geisha sounds out of an ordinary heroine in love? Have you never been mellow?
What about the rest of the album? Well, it’s all pretty samey, though this is actually a good thing for a change. “73 Hours” combines some thwomping beats with the misty vox of Faith (this time singing an actual melody!) to knit a nice comfy blanket of a tune. (“24 Hours”, on the other hand, is a brief sonic excursion for Steed, without vocals). Fans of Ofra Haza might enjoy Faith’s nonsense ululations in “Lined”, which should sound like mourning or something, but actually sounds like a blaspheming seraph floating into the night. “Trouble Sleeping” is more potent than melatonin, the sound of a sea cucumber dozing off while the Little Mermaid floats past it. I hoped that “Yoko’s Lament” would jostle the pacing with some Yoko Ono caterwaul, but unfortunately it’s the most sluggish thing on the record, and it has few beats. It does include a funny refrain that goes, “shooby do-wop bop”, though. The record’s funkiest moment is “Crash”, where atonal boops and scratchy gurgles actually help define Faith’s helpless vocals. The closing track, “On the Ground”, reprises the opening track (oh I get it: petals on the ground), with a slightly more relaxed temperament (if such a thing is possible).
So what is this album? What are we supposed to take with us? Well to me it’s obvious: it’s an indie Quiet Storm album. The way the electric definition crackles in one ear while Jeannette breathes in the other evokes the clean sheets of a grad-school bedsit romance. It’s all very slow and tender, but you definitely hear a progression from one song to the next. Opening tracks “Petals” and “Hiding” sound like foreplay, while closers “Crash” and “On the Ground” sound like cuddling. At 50 minutes, it might be too brief for Quiet Storm purposes, but hey at least you don’t have to get up and flip it over.
// Notes from the Road
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