If you're gonna stop telling jokes, you'd better have some kick-ass drama up your sleeve.
You know the ol' rock music cliché: a self-titled album from a young band implies a sense of self-discovery, of maturity, of sonic development. No more screwing around with concept albums. No more eight-minute guitar solos or ill-fated "world music" excursions. It's the point in a band's career when everybody says, "Hey, guys -- let's stop messing around and start taking this shit seriously!"
For North Carolina duo Ear Pwr (comprised of Devin Booze and Sarah Reynolds), the stars seem aligned for a more serious artistic makeover. Their full-length debut, 2009's strangely titled Super Animal Brothers III, was an infectious, ADD-riddled pile of home-brewed electronic-pop that sported an over-the-top sense of humor and an unfortunate habit of trying too much too often. Critics were undecided on their tongue-in-cheek synth schizophrenia (although their peers were more kind -- evidenced by their recent set at the 2011 ATP Festival, curated by critical mega-gods Animal Collective, a band Ear Pwr probably grew up worshiping).
Yet Super Animal Brothers' lukewarm reviews seem to have functioned as some sort of wake-up call for the eager duo. After a stint living amidst the burgeoning music scene in Baltimore, Booze and Reynolds packed up, disillusioned, and headed home to the mountains of North Carolina, where they reigned in and focused on the less eclectic, more fluid and cohesive strands that comprise...yes...Ear Pwr, which is, according to a press release, a "collaborative commitment to one another in their maturing musical endeavor". So, is Ear Pwr the sudden peak of maturity we should expect? Unfortunately...yes.
Things commence with "Mountain Home", (one of many tracks to blatantly reference their North Carolina digs), with Booze and Reynolds crafting a futuristic film-noir atmosphere -- an intro somewhat akin to a synthed-out version of Zeppelin's "No Quarter". As the track develops, it's clear that some of the trademarks of their debut are in-tact (Reynolds' shoestring-thin voice, effects-washed percussion, Cheez Wiz synths), but something's decidedly different. Gone are the childlike genre shifts, the danceable rhythms, the endearingly stupid robot backing vocals. There are echoes of Bear in Heaven's heady electro-prog endeavors – added emphasis on live-sounding drums (It's hard to tell whether you're hearing a drum kit or programming) and less emphasis on melody.
"We're not like them / We can't pretend," Reynolds sighs (possibly a jab at those stuffy critics who couldn't take a joke?) "You think we're dumb / Maybe we're just happy." Problem is: the fun's pretty much evaporated. Unlike Bear in Heaven, who manage to build their minimal, synth-based foundations into towering caverns of sound, Ear Pwr are content to simply drill their good ideas -- like the glorious sequenced synth arpeggios on the mind-numbing "National Parks" or the Phil Collins-trapped-in-a-well drum sound that propels "Baby Houses" -- into the ground, running around the tree of synthy art-rock glory instead of scaling it.
Sonically, Ear Pwr does benefit from more time in the studio. The music is more than rich, and there's much to be said for Booze's way with a synthesizer –-- throughout, he demonstrates a finesse for melodic lines that are both hooky and slightly alien. Taken a track at a time, it's pretty effective, but they utilize the exact same sonic template for the entire 39 minutes (minus an occasional shift from "synth" to "synth-bass"), and after a few songs, the euphoria quickly dissolves. Vocals are mixed nearly to a whisper, but it hardly matters since Reynolds' lyrics rarely add up to anything more than nursery rhyme schemes and pseudo-psychedelic mumblings. On "Melt", which features one of the album's finest synth arrangements, she whispers, reassuring a nervous lover, "It's just you and me / In our secret place / Free to be ourselves / Melting into space." Far out. The lyrics to "National Parks" are (outside of the generous invitations to "chase a wild deer" or "make a child smile") are..."National parks". Mumbled 20-some times. (I like to imagine Reynolds, inspired after an eye-opening visit to Yellowstone, returning to the studio and scribbling the phrase over and over on a yellow pad of paper.)
Basically, if you're gonna stop telling jokes, you'd better have some kick-ass drama up your sleeve. On Ear Pwr, they're only half-way there.
Hey -- nobody said maturation was easy.