Despite the duo’s name, Exitmusic’s first collection for Secretly Canadian — Passage — doesn’t sound like what you’d hear over the closing credits. Instead, much of it feels like the dramatic climax that precedes it, and the moments that don’t hit that peak are weighted, uncertain denouements. This is music that wants to strike you, but it doesn’t hit with earworm hooks or charging chorus. Instead it is the sheer size and weight of the songs that is striking, that seeks to win you over, that pushes you to feel something.
If what that something is remains uncertain, the murkiness the album exists in — both emotionally and sonically — is one of its greatest assets. There is something dream-like about this sound at its most tame, but at its most tame it feels less distinct. The first half of “The Night” is calm, especially in the wake of the crushing title track that opens the record, but sounds too close to other dreamy acts (in particular Beach House), which renders this sound more sleepy than otherworldly. Contrast that, though, with the punishing drums and swirling atmosphere that rushes in on “The City”. Here you don’t have a dream, you have a night terror, the kind you might come to love, that might make sweat flash on your skin and then cool. It’s a chilly, troubling wall of sounds, as singer Aleska Palladino roars out rippling lines like “Soldier do what’s right”, and the sheer force of her voice is something to reckon.
There are other moments that leave the same sort of strong impression. “Storms” is not as towering as “The City”, but its combination of echoing drums, clattering piano, and negative space around the barely restrained warble of Palladino’s singing makes for a shadowy, tense tune. “Stars” distorts Palladino’s voice with heavy fuzz, and the piano gets bigger behind squalling guitars, provided by Palladino’s bandmate and husband Devon Church. “The Cold” is one song that avoids huge tumbling volume and succeeds, as gaping space — barely inhabited by faint atmospherics — makes a wide, dark canvas over which Palladino’s full-throated howl ripples out.
There is, to be sure, an obvious power in what Exitmusic does, and the music does have a fittingly cinematic size. The duo name checks the likes of Kid A-era Radiohead and Sigur Ros among their influences, and it’s hard not to hear them on Passage. For music that comes from just two people, there’s an awful lot of layers and weight to what’s presented here, which is impressive. At the same time, these sounds can be too big, too forceful. They go from wanting you to feel something to trying to force you to feel something. The churning clatter of “White Noise” feels out of control, but not purposeful in its abandon. “The Wanting”, from its title on down, feels overwrought. It denies us the giant crescendo of these other songs, thankfully, but the plodding grind of it — with guitar feedback once again swirling around simple piano — wears thin quickly. Even at the outset, with the five-plus minute attack that is “Passage”, the huge drums and cascading sounds are affecting before they overstay their welcome, then the sound just gets overbearing.
The bottom line is that these songs often build to loud explosions — or approach and retreat from them, in a rote loud-quiet-loud construction — and do so far too often, so as the record goes on, and the hits keep coming, their impact lessens. Palladino’s amazingly powerful voice gets pulled into this problem. The tension in her voice when its quiet and restrained — check “Storms” and most of “The Modern Age”, the album’s most propulsive song — shows its true power and intrigue, as ups the ante on other ghostly singers by giving her voice a troubling low quake. Unfortunately, she is also aware of just how big her voice can get and constantly oversells it. As much as she belts it out in the choruses of “Passage”, she does the same all over the record, twisting words into big, shapeless sounds that never quite make their point, emotionally or otherwise.
Exitmusic spends this record convincing you it can make a big noise, and of that there is no doubt. At times, that big noise is quite impressive, and the nuanced layers that make it up do indeed evoke emotions, take you somewhere. Unfortunately, too much of Passage opens up doors — big, gaping ones — that don’t ever lead anywhere. It’s a huge sound, but it doesn’t reach out to you so much as it wraps itself around the players, insulating them, keeping them at a distance from us and from where it is they’d like this music to go.