[14 March 2014]
Hollow & Akimbo’s eponymous album comes out of the speakers like a different dimension crashing against or seeping into ours. To put it succinctly, the LP from the Ann Arbor, Michigan, duo of Jonathan Visger and Brian Konicek is one of the most ambitious and confident records to yet emerge in 2014. The fact it is their debut is all the more confounding. Laden with hooks and catchy refrains that narrowly sidestep being overwhelming, the album worms its way into your consciousness and plants a germ there that spreads like a candy-coated contagion. That’s not to say it’s an overly syrupy affair; on the contrary, the band takes electronic pop and mixes it with the experimentation of prog rock and intricate guitar work, resulting in a soundtrack to a sci-fi mind trip. Big-sound production, layers of texture and indistinct instrumentation arrive in waves of color, the melodies often crashing into heavily percussive pandemonium before reassembling themselves from the din.
The first three songs establish the band’s aesthetic and, collectively, the trio stands as the album’s highlight. “Trunk of a Dead Tree” starts with shimmering atmospherics, joined by a bouncy, rubber band flicking bass line, jangly guitar loops and cooing vocals from Visger delivering some pointed, kiss-off lyrics. As it builds, the listener is baited to expect a powerful payoff, and the tune delivers, the drums ratcheting it up as the album’s first singalong chorus emerges — “All those sirens break the silence / All those gawkers stare / I’d be fine just living life in the trunk of a dead tree / Trunk of a dead tree.” Come the bridge, the various instruments spiral out in all directions, anchored by that thick bass, before coalescing again for a final appearance of the refrain. On its heels comes “Singularity”, starting ominously with vibrating menace before segueing into a groovy grandeur that veers into Passion Pit territory, specifically in the vocals on the chorus. Rather than go bombastic in the bridge, the tune zeroes in with some sparse piano notes beneath Visger’s forlorn singing. Like a tube squeezed at one end, the minimalism’s proportionate response arrives in the outro, a dinosaur stomping aural pastiche asserting itself.
Out of this opening three-part salvo, “Fever Dreams” arises as the crown jewel. A barrage of clamorous percussion and Konicek’s squealing guitar parts establish the hallucinogenic vibe, rife with the foreboding that comes with the vivid reveries that accompany a night of battling illness with NyQuil. “I’m just an ocean / An aromatic pool,” Visger sings, his voice floating out through a haze of psychedelia. A breakdown of prodigious drums, guitar solos and sparking synths blend into a light piano melody, seemingly symbolizing one’s awakening from a nightmare.
“Still Life” slows things down and works as a breathing period and palate cleanser. Falsetto yearning over stark music defines it, though yet again it abruptly shifts into tumultuous drumming in the last third. The more subdued approach continues with the next few songs, “Door to Another World” notable for its whimsical tone and reflective notions of urban alienation. Unfortunately, the cuts least likely to remain in your mind arrive in this stretch, tunes like “Molecule” and “Lucky Stars” failing to distinguish themselves from the successes found elsewhere on the record. On the plus side, the jaunty rhythm and impressionistic lyrics of “The One Who Has to Carry You Home” offer enough intrigue to suck you in, and the midtempo “Did You Lie?” is a slow burning slice of sultriness, a sweet vocal melody belying the lyrics’ venomous content of schadenfreude putdowns. “Instead of a Head” wraps the record with a feeling of resolution, though it works primarily due to its place as the closer and doesn’t particularly standout on its own merit.
Perhaps what makes Hollow & Akimbo work so well is that it in many ways it is a stew of influences. Flashes of the Flaming Lips, the aforementioned Passion Pit, the Shins, and Radiohead are evident throughout, but the mixture is so distinctive that these recognitions are checkpoints more than distracting imitations. The vocals of “The One Who Has to Carry You Home” bear shades of James Mercer, and “Fever Dreams” is in the tradition of Thom Yorke and crew — though is decidedly more fun than their brand of art — yet perceiving this only indicates Hollow & Akimbo are informed by these references and are progressing from them, rather than being dominated by them. Only occasionally do the songs sound derivative, “Door to Another World” being one of these scarce examples, as it could be mistaken for a song by fellow Michigan indie popsters Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. Minor flaws aside, Hollow & Akimbo is one of the brightest recent debuts, demanding repeated listens to grasp the subtleties hidden behind all that is going on up front. It’s electronic pop for guitar rockers, and guitar rock for electronic pop fans.