Sweet, Sweet Sadness
Roskilde, Denmark’s Printer is one of those bands that sound like the members pooled all their cash for one 1979-model synthesizer, then used it to make an entire album. In terms of overall aesthetic, their references are the first couple pre-fame Human League albums, the first few OMD albums, and the moody cuts from Depeche Mode’s A Broken Frame. And, thanks to the likes of Aphex Twin and Autechre, they use bits of telephone static for percussion and detail. The Postal Service. Junior Boys. And now Printer.
But don’t write them off because they sound like the other bands that sound like other bands. When it works, which is most of the time, Rhizomatic Baby is magnificent. It’s as if the sunlight depravation has imbued these guys with a talent for writing the saddest songs in the world that make you happy to be sad.
Rhizomatic Baby more or less alternates dreamy, impressionistic numbers with chugging, uptempo ones, with the slowies winning out. “Don’t Expect” could well be mistaken for Radiohead—Kid A Radiohead, that is. The high-pitched, dude-there’s-no-point-in-trying vocals warn you, “Don’t expect to get it ba-aack…”. A chilly bass synth climbs and ascends while a rhythm pitter-patters in the background. “Champagne” adds a gentle guitar figure, the tension of “Don’t Expect” giving way to dreaminess and an affecting, three-note chorus. “Flicking”‘s angsty verses cascade into a resigned, wordless chorus of analog tones that bleed into one another. The lullaby-like “Goodnight” is a fitting ending, fading into a mist of synth washes.
The real selling point, though, is the stunning “Erased by the Swans”. Fragile chords sprinkle across the speakers like paint on a canvas while an electronic storm gradually breaks overhead; as with most of the album, the mournful vocals are really another instrument, adding depth and atmosphere. This could be the Slow One from Tears for Fears’ first two albums, emoting that really works on an emotional level. Get out the tissue paper and enjoy.
The faster songs on Rhizomatic Baby are anticlimactic and a bit formulaic by comparison. “Oh Yeah” tries for glammy attitude and fails, not least because of a lead synth that must be set on “flatulent”. “Nightclub” is as close as Printer come to a straight-up dance track; “American Dream” is as close as they come to a straight-up pop track. Both are serviceable but ultimately distract from the spell cast by the ethereal songs that surround them. Only the driving, sardonic “Singsong” gets the circa 1986 synth-goth vibe just right: a couple chords, detachment, and a distortion pedal—20 years later, you can hear how the early synth-poppers thought of themselves as logical heirs to the punk ethos. Or, program your player around these numbers and immerse yourself in the atmosphere.
It’s OK for bands like Printer to get nailed with the “new-retro-synth-pop” tag as long as their music can transcend it. On that count, Rhizomatic Baby has no problem, although you sometimes wish that the instrumentation were richer and more filled out. Then again, there’s nothing like a vintage synth for making sadness sound so blissful.