Slow Runner: No Disassemble

[26 February 2006]

By Winston Kung

"Android Hearts"

Somewhere, sometime deep within our urban-suburban lives, we’ve lost all touch with anything natural or organic. That’s not to say we’ve lost all touch with our emotions as well; it’s just that we’re at a loss when it comes to expressing it. Throw a harmonica, flutes, hell, even any guitar that’s not electric, and us city boys wouldn’t know what to do with it, let alone how to identify. “Rootsy-ness” is lost on those who have never seen a single root in their life.

More and more, though, there grows a movement to condense the whims of the human heart into a series of mechanical blips and beeps. Starting at the lo-fi of Pavement and continuing towards the progressive climax of OK Computer on to the idea’s current indie-pop manifestation in The Postal Service, South Carolina electro-pop boys Slow Runner have absorbed all these influences in their debut. The result? Well, let these boys say it for themselves, in their charmingly wry, self-depreciating press bio: “like if r2-d2 had an aching heart and a love for the noisiest beatles songs.” (Yes, there are no capitals in their printed statement. That’s emo for you.)

By and large, they mostly succeed in their task, though it has to be said that they don’t set their bar anywhere groundbreaking. By now, we know what to expect from the standard indie pop album: waveringly emotional, half-poetic, kinda-quirky lyrics placed over calm, sober, kinda-quirky melodies. Call it the Death Cab syndrome. Frontman Michael Flynn fills out the precocious indie kid role nicely, like a young Ben Gibbard (okay, Ben’s young too, but us critics have a compulsive need to make comparisons), possessing an English major, a crystal-clear sparkling voice, a geeky attitude—oh, and a John Lennon Songwriting scholarship.

It doesn’t take long for those songwriting skills to manifest themselves. Starting with a charming, lo-fi bloop of an intro, the album proceeds to launch into “Break Your Mama’s Back”, an infectious song based on an 8-bit riff and chugging guitars. The pop strengths are further elaborated on “You’re in Luck”, with a synth part so addictive you’ll find yourself making weird whining sounds to sing along with it.

It’s when they reach for the emo part of emo-pop, though, that Slow Runner falters. English major or no, the fact is that Flynn is not a great lyricist; at best, he’s inconsequential, at worst, gag-inducing. The most egregious example of the latter comes from “The Sea Is Never Full”, where the singer wishes to “Curse the day, / You walked her home from school” over an instrumental tracking that sounds like Elliot Smith turned into Disney mush. “Moody Suburban Teenage Love Song”, while pretty enough melodically, is a little bit . . . obvious, to say the least.

Fortunately, most of the lyrics stick to the inoffensive side; choruses like “Change your name, / Whoa-ooa-ooa-ooa” don’t mean anything, but they don’t grate either. Their function is to serve as icing on masterfully arranged, techno-inflected soundscapes, which reveal themselves as Slow Runner’s greatest strength. “Everything is Exactly What It Seems” features a propulsive bassline and a quietly funky piano riff that is one soaring vocal melody away from being a danceable pop hit; “Streamlined” is the album’s most sublime song, astounding in its texture and soft, nuanced percussion. When No Disassemble deviates from its lo-fi aesthetic to incorporate unwelcome harmonicas, the results are predictably disastrous—fortunately, “Redneck Bar” is the only track that falls in this trap.

If and when Slow Runner focuses on fashioning their blips and bloops into wonderful pop textures instead of emotional vehicles, they’ll emerge as a band to challenge their clear inspiration, Postal Service. For now, though, they’ve got one foot on the dance floor and the other stuck to the mopey emo sofa, and as a result No Disassemble is a mostly satisfying but uneven debut.

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