The Palace Garden is a fairly grand album. Is it rock? Is it electronica? Does it even matter?
The year 1997 was supposed to be the year that electronica broke. Bands like Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers were poised for the big time, poised to knock serious guitar-based rock bands off their pedestals. And, to borrow a line from a certain electronica act, by the following year, serious rock groups like The Smashing Pumpkins were trading their guitars in for turntables (well, sort of) by coming up with synthesized sounds on their underrated and rather neglected Adore. Aside from a blockbuster album from Moby not long after and the occasional gurgle of talent from the electronica underworld (Daft Punk, LCD Soundsystem), the rise of keyboard-based music en masse never really happened, unless you consider mainstream pop fluff as The Black Eyed Peas or Katy Perry as being sort of mired in the genre. Guitar based rock ‘n’ roll remains popular (at least in the mid-sized city I live in, which boasts at least three mainstream rock radio stations), which is somewhat odd considering that some of the best rock bands (Led Zeppelin, Rush) wound up moving towards keyboards at some point in their careers. In a way, you can look at electronica and rock as either being an “us versus them” phenomena, with both genres at opposite polarities, or you can look at the genre as just being a sub-branch of rock music in and of itself.
If you agree with the latter assessment, this is kinda where Beat Connection comes in.
Essentially, this Seattle-based outfit is categorically electronic. They have cascading, shimmery synth lines that resemble M83 – particularly on “New Criteria”, the opening track of their debut LP The Palace Garden – and, yes, considering that the quartet borrows their band name from an early LCD Soundsystem single, they do produce club-baiting tracks that recalls the work of James Murphy and company. But, at heart, Beat Connection in its latest incarnation could pass as a rock band. And a serious indie-rock band at that. The rock part comes in with vocalist and guitarist Tom Eddy, and a live drummer in the form of Jarred Katz to anchor the bleeps and bloops created by co-founders Jordan Koplowitz and Reed Juenger. And the indie part of the equation enters the fray when you learn that the group has toured with the likes of Real Estate and Toro Y Moi. There are moments on The Palace Garden in which the band brings certain underground rock influences to the fore: “Saola”, with its syncopated drum pattern, sounds a little like Surfer Blood crossed with the sticks-on-sticks sound of Local Natives. “Think Feel”, with its heavenly, echoy female vocals and plucky icy sound, could pass for You Forgot It In People-era Broken Social Scene, if BSS were sleeker and slightly more varnished, if not slightly less experimental. “Further Out” plays in sine waves of sharp keyboards while motoriking to a steady and cornerstone 4/4 beat along with some warm calypso steel drums that nudge the song into Vampire Weekend territory. And “Invisible Cities”, with its layered harmonies and background vocals, sounds a little like what Band of Horses and TV on the Radio would come across as if they were mashed up in a blender set on purée.
That the album and band feel a little like things that have come before can either be a blessing or a liability, but I’m willing to sit in the former camp. Other critics have carped that the songwriting on The Palace Garden is a little lacklustre, particularly in the mid-section of the record. I’m wondering if they and I got the same record: If “Think Feel”, which is the seventh out of 12 tracks, is considered weak and not up there with the band’s best material, well, I just won’t hear that argument. True, some of the best songs do wind up near the front and very back of the album, but there is hardly a mid-album sag in The Palace Garden. Perhaps I’m caught up in the possibilities of a rock band playing as though it were an electronica act for me to have loosened my faculties, but The Palace Garden simply a great, fun record. You’re not going to earn a philosophy degree from listening to it, and some of the lyrics are a little repetitive, but, hey, this is dance music, primarily, so that kind of seems like a minor knock when you grouse about it. If The Palace Garden’s sole purpose is to move your feet, it does a pretty good job of it. If there is, indeed, any real key fault with the record, it's that it shares a flaw with M83’s last album, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming in that there are a few minute-long interstitial tracks that don’t add very much to the mix, nor do they act as segues into new songs. In fact, you kind of wish they were longer, and, this being a single 41-minute album, these short one-minute tracks don’t do as good a job as hiding in the mix as they do on a double.
Still, The Palace Garden is a fairly grand album. Is it rock? Is it electronica? Does it even matter? Pretty good is pretty good, no matter how you slice it, and, for a debut album (not counting an earlier EP), Beat Connection do a massive job of bringing people together in clubland to get up and move with melodies that engagingly stick – in your head, in your soul, in your shoe. It’s a record that’s in that hazy hinterland of being nearly excellent, but admirably coasts in as a solid, decent effort with some memorable, catchy songs. And that’s ultimately what good rock, or electronica, does. It moves you, somehow. So screw the debate as to whether this is (indie) rock or dance music. Beat Connection do a great job of bringing some punch to the genres they mire themselves in, and, overall, they'll have you partying like it is 1997 all over again.