Matthew Adam Hart might make homemade compositions of richly-arranged, laptop-assisted techno pop, but out of all the notable artists in the genre (Caribou, Four Tet, Junior Boys), Hart’s project, The Russian Futurists, appeals most to those who love good pop music. While the other aforementioned acts enthrall us with either their understated charm or their ability to produce moments of crazed, electronic euphoria, Hart’s music always centers around the catchiness of it all, as vocal melodies carry each song, and each composition seems to always contain a memorable hook. More closely related to The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, and Stephen Merritt more than anyone else, Hart’s two previous full-length releases, 2001’s The Method of Modern Love and 2003’s Let’s Get Ready to Crumble, both had that kind of innocuous charisma that indie music fans relish; here’s an anonymous guy in Toronto, writing and recording songs in his bedroom, doing the best with what resources he had, creating some sublime, eccentric, often pretty music that few people will ever know about. It’s the kind of scenario that music geeks drool over time and again, and for good reason, as that underdog quality is what partially makes indie music so much fun at times, but more importantly, the music is always incredibly accessible, with the ability to captivate any curious listener, not just the hipsters out there.
So comes the real test for Mr. Hart now, as Album Number Three sees him trying to broaden the sound of The Russian Futurists, and on Our Thickness, a record that stays true to the sound of the previous two albums, Hart succeeds, the disc bolstered by a much more beefed-up sound that forego the earlier airy sounds in favor of a flat-out wallop of music. The wall of sound he creates is both sumptuous and jarring, as each track is loaded with samples and instrumentation, often punctuated by insistent, boisterous beats, all delivered in a very well-produced package. Unlike Caribou’s Dan Snaith, for instance, who uses his sampling skill to piece together a rich mosaic of sound, Hart’s backing tracks serve one main purpose: to reinforce the ridiculously contagious vocal hooks he has an uncanny knack for writing, making for a lush-sounding, yet deceivingly simple sounding record.
There’s no better example of Hart’s method than on the lively opening track “Paul Simon”. Constructed primarily around a sample of a three-note blast of horns over a thrumming bassline and a rigorous, brisk beat, he simply lets that simple hook carry the entire tune: Hart sings a couple lines, the horns come in, he sings some more, the horns enter again. No chorus, no bridge, just that fun interplay between Hart’s charmingly melancholy lyrics (“There’s this one word, it’s called comfort/It’s the strangest, most dangerous place I could hide”) and that catchy horn sample. Its simplicity is so ingenious, that the sample remains in your head for hours.
In direct contrast, the stark “Sentiments Vs. Syllables” features hip-hop-inspired beats and chiming synth notes echo Hart’s vocal melody. Hart has always shown a strong devotion to the Beach Boys on his early material, and the ebullient “Our Pen’s Out of Ink” revisits that sound, as he uses layered backing vocals and a snappy piano riff as a backdrop to his Brian Wilson-esque vocal phrasing. “Hurtin’ For Certain” goes headlong into Magnetic Fields territory, and Hart shows he’s as great a Merritt imitator as Swedish wunderkind Jens Lekman, his lilting melody masking the usual despondent sentiment, while “It’s Over, It’s Nothing” is pure misery, through and through, Hart’s self-loathing enhanced by the slightly more stark arrangement. The gorgeous “Still Life”, arguably the best track on the album, epitomizes the way Hart can cram so much into a song, yet make it sound so straightforward, as his samples and synth bleeps follow his vocals like the bouncing ball on old television sing-along shows, but once you delve deeper and take a closer listen, the sheer number of sounds Hart uses is mind-boggling, as you think you hear strings, steel drums, and guitar, but quickly get lost in the blissful cacophony.
If there’s a gripe some will have, it’s that the album is too hook-laden, that several of Hart’s juvenile, schoolyard style melodies get tiresome (“These Seven Notes” may be the worst offender), but at a comfy 38 minutes, there’s never a sense of overkill, despite the relentless onslaught of contagious melodies. Our Thickness reaches a wondrous climax on the luminous “Incandescent Hearts” , a synth-pop gem that has arrived 20 years too late, daring to one-up the Junior Boys in its unabashed devotion to new romantic greats OMD, its chorus boasting a wistful, ethereal melody that, like much of the rest of the album, lingers in the subconscious long after hearing it. And by the time the disc ends, it’s absolutely impossible to not let it repeat playing, just so you can hear “Paul Simon” one more time.