[9 April 2009]
The high point of Telekinesis! comes early on, about half a minute into the second track, “Coast of Carolina”. Michael Lerner, behind a curtain of lo-fi distance, accompanied by a flat acoustic guitar, sings with distracted yearning, “Dreaming of the coast of Carolina / Dreaming all the ways that you will smile”, giving that last word two extra syllables. Then, the song takes a deep breath, a couple of stray cymbal skitters are heard, and if ever there was an appropriate moment to use the verb “explodes” in describing a piece of pop music, now would unquestionably be it. Those electric chords come out of nowhere. They’re imbued with the sort of breathless energy that many bands spend their entire careers trying to capture. In that propulsive, transcendent moment, you’re ready to follow Lerner wherever the hell he wants to take you.
Telekinesis!, despite the considerable hand Chris Walla had in its creation, is for all intents and purposes a solo album, centering squarely on Lerner’s songcraft. That ends up being one of its many endearing qualities. No matter how high some of these tracks soar, no matter how huge they can end up sounding, they never lose that unassuming personal element. This is an album less concerned with grand statements than it is with setting the songwriter’s romantic images of Tokyo to a piece of instantly engaging, Big Star-esque power pop. It’s an album filled with stray, humble journal entries, not wild-eyed scriptures.
And while the stamp of early ‘70s power pop is all over these tunes, they also, as is the case with many of the artists championed by Chris Walla, fit comfortably into the more twee-leaning end of the modern indie rock scene. In fact, with its conciseness (the album clocks in at just over half an hour), ability to cull a surprising array of texture from a fairly stripped down palette, and reliance on strong, gimmickless songwriting, it’s easy to compare Telekinesis! to decade landmarks like Oh, Inverted World. Songs like “Great Lakes” and “Imaginary Friends” share little in common – the first is a ballad bathed in sunset, strings, and nostalgia, while the second revolves around a post-punk riff and recalls Yo La Tengo at their most whimsical – aside from the fact that they’re mostly shaped from the same raw materials and lodge their hooks in your brain the second you hear them.
Which isn’t to say this album never repeats itself. It does: “Coast of Carolina” and “Foreign Room”, while both fantastic on their own, take uncomfortably similar shapes, each revolving around soaring, gently reverbed, wordless choruses (a trick Lerner uses often, but a trick that often works) and breathless tempos. Same with “Rust” and “I Saw Lightning”, two (nearly) acoustic ballads wherein one can almost glimpse a formula at work behind Lerner’s vulnerable, charismatic voice.
But with such charisma at work, even though you know repetition really shouldn’t have a place on a record that soldiers on for just a bit longer than most EPs, it’s easy to forgive flaws. And if you’re the sort of person who focuses on the fact that this album doesn’t exactly bring a lot of revolutionary stuff to the table, that Lerner’s lyrics are a little clichéd at their worst, that it’s a little too easy to slap Telekinesis! with the increasingly bland “indie rock” tag instead of focusing on the fact you’re listening to a collection of sincere, intelligently constructed, often beautiful songs, then you probably shouldn’t be bothering with this whole pop music thing in the first place.