[23 March 2011]
It’s no surprise that Baltimore resident and electronic music artist Benny Boeldt, who records as Adventure, is great friends with fellow Baltimorean and electronic music superstar Dan Deacon. Both men favor the synth sounds of ‘80s video games in their music. But while Deacon takes these sounds and twists them into bizarre new contexts, Adventure’s self-titled first album sounded like it could’ve actually been the soundtrack to a Sega Genesis game. As entertaining as his compositions were, there was nothing particularly fresh about them. His original songs sounded like note-perfect re-creations of the 8- and 16-bit era.
Which brings us to Adventure’s new album, Lesser Known. Boeldt has decided to go in a completely different direction this time out, trading in the video game sounds for ‘80’s synth-pop. And yet, his issues remain the same. Calling him a revivalist doesn’t go far enough, because Boeldt’s goal seems to be that of a recreationist. Don’t get me wrong, musical recreations have their place, but usually that place is reserved for styles that have been lost to history, from before the music was written down, or by using replicas of instruments from a bygone era to more accurately reproduce what the music originally sounded like when it was performed. ‘80s synth-pop is neither of these things; it’s readily available to anyone with a computer and access to Youtube or iTunes.
This brings up another point. Is it actually a detriment that Lesser Known slavishly recreates the sounds of ‘80s synth-pop? Does Boeldt lose points for originality while simultaneously gaining points for the authenticity of his sound? Should he get credit for accurately reflecting two wholly different types of music on two different albums, like some latter-day version of Ween? As far as popular music is concerned, I’m a person who values songwriting ability first and originality second, but not by much, and not always in the same increments. Adventure is such a strange outlier that critically judging the music becomes, well, an adventure.
Opening track “Song 1” announces the album’s intent. It’s a three-minute instrumental with a pulsing synth bass line, tinny synth drums, washes of high-pitched keyboard chords, and a mid-range melody that slides between two or three distinct synth sounds. New Order would be proud. Or highly offended. Second track and single “Feels Like Heaven” ups the ante by putting the synth drums right out in front and adding vocals. Adventure’s first album was entirely instrumental, but Lesser Known is full of singing, most of it layered. “Feels Like Heaven” has exactly two lines, “This feels like heaven” and “This is like heaven”, and they’re repeated ad nauseum in both falsetto and a lower-pitched voice. It’s repetitive, but as a dance track the song works and doesn’t wear out its welcome.
“Smoke and Mirrors” sounds like a lost Human League b-side. If someone told you it was the backing track to the original 7” release of “Don’t You Want Me”, you wouldn’t bat an eye. But not only is it spot-on in terms of its influence, it’s also a really good song. The album continues on in this vein, always hitting its targets sonically, but Boeldt is less successful in terms of songwriting. “Fool’s Paradise” apes New Order again, but can’t quite measure up in terms of catchiness. “Rio” does subpar Depeche Mode, while “Another World” could almost be an alternate take of MARRS’ “Pump Up the Volume.”
The only times that Boeldt changes up his synth-pop stylings are the very occasional moments when he works in a bit of the video game sound of his first album. “Lights Out” sounds like a lost ‘80s club track that never quite broke through to the pop charts. But one of its driving hooks is a squeaky, vibrato-laden sound that would’ve sounded as at home in a level of Bionic Commando as it would on the dance floor. By the time the album ends with the upbeat ballad “The Meadows” (reference point: the Cure), Adventure’s run through the ‘80s feels complete. But I’m not convinced that listeners wouldn’t be better served by just seeking out the original synth-pop artists that the album spends so much energy imitating.