[7 December 2010]
Right now, it seems little makes the sting of winter more acute than listening to All Night cooped up indoors while the world outside descends into Dickensinian misery. Your reviewer is currently in such a situation, wondering why it is that Houses’ debut on Lefse Records should be released at a time when even the hangover of the dog days has long dissipated. Perhaps she can take a leaf out of Dexter Tortoriella’s life and move to Hawaii.
That is what the frontman of Houses did after receiving the sack back in his native Chicago. His way of dealing with redundancy was to decamp to a cabin on Papaikou with his girlfriend, and, stripped of mod cons like electricity, gas and running water, plant a life that literally drank from the salt of the earth. Candlelight was the only way to go; for anything more high-tech, such as the energy for Tortoriella’s laptop and music-making, was harvested via solar panels. Unfortunately, the idyllic life didn’t last much longer than two months when the cash dried up. So the couple returned to the Windy City and decided to give Tortoriella’s idyllic arrangements and field recordings the urban treatment. As he explained in an interview, “The album was pressed onto vinyl on a vintage Neumann cutting lathe and then sent through a series of old analogue mastering equipment. It then underwent a digital transfer”. With this fantastic backdrop in mind, you can probably guess that All Night is an impressionistic work, evocative of nature’s gifts, with a bit of sound wizardry thrown in. “Endless Spring”, for instance, has this reviewer conjuring up autumn leaves shrugging off the first frost. Corny, I know, but it works!
The album does speak unsubtly of Houses’ time away from the city. Being both hazy and ethereal, it could be construed as another example of the enduring “hypnogogic” pop phenomenon, despite it not being conceived anywhere near the suburbs. “Rose Book”, for instance, is something you’d expect from the king of bedroom artists, Toro Y Moi, with its weak pulse of a drumbeat, swirling milieu of pastel synths, and Tortoriella’s soporific vocals materialising in and out of the soundscape. The same goes for “Medicine”, an interlude that evokes a shimmering but warped kaleidoscope of the Aurora Borealis or something equally celestial and magnificent.
All Night also bears the haunted innocence and melancholic beauty of Scandinavian acts like JJ. The title track encapsulates this best, with the vocal harmonies dreamily melding together and pitched at some distance away from Earth, while a Balearic melody winds in the background like a sun-damaged music box.
The highlights, though, are the album’s upbeat numbers. “Reds” is like a mirage of achingly beautiful melodic turns that buttress Tortoriella’s childlike appeals of love. A cantering beat drives it into the hearts of those memories that are unspeakably warm and fuzzy. “Soak It Up”, meanwhile, is exquisite despite its barebones palette and the lead singer’s whispered incantations painting the desolate air that wafts through some no man’s land, be it Nebraska or Iceland. “Lost In Blue”, another gem, is resplendent in heavily-treated vocals, glitchy rhythms, and claustrophobic undertones, making it seem like a lost candidate for Radiohead’s Kid A. As with much of Tortoriella’s work thus far, this number is imperfection that’s been executed with much care and calculation.
For all its atmospheric evocations, though, All Night has one major liability: It all begins to blur into one shimmering vision once you reach about halfway. Aspiring to be a pop record, there’s something disappointing about it being more like aural wallpaper—the greatest casualty being the thought and effort Tortoriella put into its production. Its lack of variation in mood and dynamics does, however, have a positive aspect: All Night won’t be a difficult act to follow. And maybe by the time Tortoriella releases album number two, the winter blues will have lifted.