Princeton: Remembrance of Things to Come

[17 April 2012]

By Elias Leight

For their second full-length, Remembrance of Things oo Come, Princeton changed their approach. In an interview with Spinner, keyboardist Ben Usen described Princeton’s first album, Cocoon of Love, as “claustrophobic and congested”. To move in a new direction, the group “stripped it down and tried to focus on certain melodies and stick with those and put those in the front.” In addition, while on tour for Cocoon of Love, the band purportedly fell in love with disco and attempted to incorporate some its tropes into their songwriting.

On their newest release, Princeton’s efforts to stick with “certain melodies” – generally melodies that stem from disco – is apparent, in that many of the songs rely on similar bass work, percussive thud, and falsetto vocals. But Princeton is caught between two desires—the desire to “strip down” their sound and the desire to blend elements from disco into their music (as well as their love of strings and vibraphones) – that are often at odds. Disco is not a genre known for simplicity; much of the best disco is chock-full of pleasing sound, layering multi-level horn arrangements and darting strings on top of elastic bass patterns and weaving, chopping guitars. Instead of streamlining their approach to find a stronger sound, Princeton produces an album of samey-sounding disco interpolations, without any of the sense of fun that makes disco an enduring and enjoyable genre. 

The songs on Remembrance of Things oo Come can be divided into two groups – the non-faux-disco and the faux-disco. The first category includes the title track, which begins like a jingle from a TV commercial or movie trailer, with perky keyboards and strings that add depth. “Holding Teeth” builds around vibraphone, violins, and a flitting flute. There is a lot of activity in these songs, but they have surprisingly little impact. In contrast, “Phase” starts with a big simple chord sequence that grows slowly, incorporating xylophone-like patters. Only 90 seconds long and entirely instrumental, “Phase” is self-contained and purposeful, and it succeeds in its purpose.

Then there is all the indie-disco: the synth sheen and rapid drumming of “Grand Rapids”, the shiny keyboards and big bass of “Florida”, the stutter of “To the Alps”, and the clean thud of “Oklahoma”, one of the few tracks where Princeton does manage to achieve their supposed goal of a spare sound. Lyrically, Princeton is often distant and hard to relate to; in “Florida”, the lyrics mention “. . . waiting for a phone call from my agent.” But generally, it’s hard to relate to the characterless tone in which the lyrics are delivered. It’s a cold falsetto, the kind of thing “indie” music is often satirized for. Combined with the vibraphone and string-heavy disco vibe, it places the music in a weird middle ground, where the vocals are too icy to be inspiring, and the instrumentation is too full to pull off the inexpressive cool.

Sophomore albums are always difficult: Bands often want to show not just that they are capable of more than one album but also that they are capable of more than one sound. Princeton’s different desires end up pushing them towards a sound characterized by lush but repetitive arrangements and a lack of spark.

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