[22 February 2009]
If there’s one remarkable feature worth noting about Hot Panda (and this review will valiantly search unmapped territory for another, like Stanley looking for Livingstone), it’s the vocals of lead singer Chris Connelly. It’s not that his pitch is perfect or that his tone and timbre are exquisite or that his range of expression is powerfully wrenching in its totalized articulation of the heady mixture of pratfalls and trophy-raisings that makes human life such a beautiful misapprehension. It isn’t any of these things, really. Rather, it’s a tumbled Sunday-morning-hangover omelet improvised from the leftover ticks and phrasings of indie’s vocal elite. Connelly’s got a bit of the shout-and-croon balance of Julian Casablancas, the nerdly yelping of Harvey Danger’s Sean Nelson, and the smug self-satisfaction of… well, of basically everybody. Whether it’s more of a sly synthesis of interesting elements or a Walmart-like corporate consolidation of bargain-priced essentials is not quite clear to me, but it’s a notable voice either way.
I draw attention to Connelly because beyond his oddly absorbing delivery, Hot Panda is (at least upon first impression) mostly a generic hodge-podge of urban bohemia’s most irritating conventions. Their bio references the band’s origins during a young-adult residence in Norway, and the liner notes include a shout-out to Café Mosaics, a vegetarian restaurant (practically the only one) in their native Edmonton, Alberta. All that’s needed is references to a preferred coffee shop and freeing Tibet, and you’ll have the outline of a whole chapter of Stuff White People Like.
Their full-length debut on Mint continues this implicit conversation. Volcano… Bloody Volcano simmers more often than it blows its top, and tends to linger in the liminal space of its titular ellipse rather than risk venturing into the blunt syllables that surround it. The production is properly, fashionably lo-fi, the guitars avoid distortion like it’s typhoid fever, and the keyboards are plinky and neurotic. Stale indie tropes are steadily deployed throughout. Opener “Cold Hands / Chapped Lips” is a particular offender, with its collective shouts, annoying off-tune noise breakdowns, and tinkly xylophone counter-melody line. Elsewhere, we get brass in “Afraid of the Weather” (well-used, but a cliché nonetheless), a deadpan kazoo chorus in “Bullhorn Romance”, and a mid-tempo instrumental of questionable utility with a Decemberists-type title (“O, Minoa!”).
Hot Panda’s enslavement to hipster style is unfortunate, since they show hints of charming pop songcraft in pleasantly unforced numbers like “Sweet Sweet Sweet” and “I Tried Very Hard”. Indeed, once they’re through with dangling the requisite carrots early on, the band settles into a less self-conscious groove in the record’s last half and does far better. “Holes” drags its feet musically, but Connelly’s vocal traces the outline of that deliberation with desperation, even as the personal pronouns of his social-outsider lyric slip from first- to second-person and back again. “Gold Star Swimmer” gesticulates in over-histrionic horror at the apparition of capitalist conformity (“The radio is pushing cultural decay”), but the musicians at least put the effort into building up a tone of ominous portent that sets it apart from the album’s predominant mood colorings. The sinister, rousing jam that fills its last two minutes is Volcano… Bloody Volcano‘s finest hour (or, rather, its finest two minutes).
The record ends on a woozy note with “Sexual Frustration”, a stumbling waltz that starts off by being about how much it sucks to not get laid and ends up concluding that getting laid sucks almost as much. Though its subject is at odds with the rest of the lyrical content, the overall effect of “Sexual Frustration” gives the truest account of Hot Panda’s bottom-heavy debut. It starts going somewhere not altogether appealing, but winds up somewhere different that is just a smidgeon more interesting, if only because it’s different. As Connelly sings in that strange, conglomerated voice of his: “And you should do what you like / But you’re not sure if it’s right / Because it feels good at the time / But shameful the next night”. Hot Panda certainly does what they like, but even they can’t be entirely sure if it’s right.