[15 December 2008]
Midway through 2008, Ben Gibbard broke the news that there would not be another Postal Service album until at least 2010, leaving scores of fragile-hearted fans who had been waiting for the followup to 2003’s Give Up in the lurch. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise, since the Postal Service was an off-the-cuff side project to start with. And, though successful, it was no match for Gibbard and fellow Postman Jimmy Tamborello’s day job in Death Cab for Cutie. In its wake, however, Give Up fostered the success of many likeminded electro/indie producers (eg. Styrofoam) and practically came to define the sound of a new genre, inspiring a wave of imitators along the way.
Enter the Age of Rockets, a glitch-pop ensemble from New York founded by vocalist/programmer/multi-instrumentalist Andrew Futral in 2003. The group’s own promotional material suggests that it has been courted by major labels and deliberately eschewed them, but it’s not entirely clear that this is, in fact, true. Futral released his debut full-length under the name The Age of Rockets in 2004, and built up some genuine buzz over his sophomore effort, 2008’s Hannah, by which time he had added several college friends as bandmates.
The group’s stylistic touchstone is clear from minute one. Lushly produced, Hannah brims with the warm synthesized landscaping and twitchy programming that are the hallmarks of the Postal Service’s sound. Futral’s voice, moreover, is uncannily similar to Gibbard’s, to the point where it’s easy to convince a casual listener that this is a new Postal Service song. His softly plaintive delivery and tendency to overlay simple vocal harmonies are ripped straight from the Death Cab playbook, and by the time he sings the line “Delancey Street trembles” in the album’s opening track, you might have to flip through the booklet or double-check with iTunes to convince yourself you’re listening to the right album.
The trouble is, Hannah is actually at its best when it’s aping Give Up; it’s at these moments when the songs open up to show some real diversity. One of its standout tracks is “Fearsome Though We Are”, whose “District Sleeps Alone”-like beginning gradually yields to textures not unlike those on the Album Leaf’s Seal Beach EP or In a Safe Place. Another is “Avada Kedavra”, which, in its fusion of the orchestral and the digital, recalls Telefon Tel Aviv as much as “Such Great Heights”. But that title? If it doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because you’re not a Harry Potter reader, and that might make it hard to take the song—or the band—seriously.
More often than not, however, the album branches out into sonic territory that Futral hasn’t yet mastered, like the disjointed polyrhythm of “Actors/Ghosts” and the stilted chamber pop of “1001 Dirty Tricks to Kill Your King”. His orchestral arrangements are hit-or-miss, sometimes sounding thin or bland when not rounded out by Moog-like washes and heavily reverbed, multitracked vocals. The slower ballads, like “We Won’t Stop”, reach for slow-burning profundity but simply begin to plod. The pitch-perfect, pristine production can feel icy and distant, muddling the emotional connection the group is clearly reaching for. Doubtless they’re big believers in computer love, but as the album progresses, the patina wears thin, revealing only circuits and plastic inside.
Which isn’t to say that it’s bad, necessarily. It’s just not the Postal Service, try as it might. But until Gibbard and Tamborello return to the knobs and the Media Mail, it’ll have to do.