The build up of intellectual / anti-intellectual tension makes music reviewer Dominique Leone's debut compositions fascinating to listen to. Turns out they can work just fine as pop songs, too.
If you read reviews of music online, you'll probably have come across the name Dominique Leone. In his writing, he shows a graceful command of pop history, tracing referents and influences with easy confidence. Less well known -- until now -- is his own musical creativity, which takes the form of similarly tight-wound electronic experimental pop. In his writing, and in talking about his own music, Leone doesn't shrink from placing his knowledge prominently on display -- OK, anyone who mentions as influences Olivier Messiaen, ABBA, and Glenn Gould in the same breath is going to incur the 'pretentious' label. And true, though his music isn't exactly open, it's hardly malicious in its complexity.
The small record label that Leone's self-titled debut full-length is being released on (it's the first release ever for the label, actually), was set up by disco luminary Hans-Peter Lindstrom and Joakim Haugland, founder of Smalltown Supersound. With the support of these guys, you expect a certain level of production values, and Leone delivers: the record sounds intellectually messy, but sonically crisp and deep, cloaking its unusual tonalities in pulsing synths that progress over the stereo field, and a plethora of other similar effects.
Things start off slightly antagonistic -- the message is, you're going to have to work a little bit to get the most out of this. After a brief introduction of high staccato synths that pulse noisily, "Kaine" settles down into an Avalanches-esque track buoyed by chopped samples, a faint vocal line, and the patter of applause. But Leone's music is more hectic, jumping jarringly from style to style. Occasionally, the point of these about-turns isn't entirely clear. The impression is postgraduate, academic; the music gives some sort of promise that simultaneously looks down on you for not quite getting it. Does that turn you off? Or does it intrigue you?
Your likelihood of being enthusiastic about Dominique Leone probably hinges on that question. Fact is, Leone's best material does both -- with his most blatantly ADD stuff, and with his calmer, more atmospheric work. "Nous Tombons Dans Elle" is silly but unstoppably buoyant; the song becomes a parody of that cheesy Euro circus-dance music. Not that Fabienne Del Sol's cover of "Laisser Tombes les Filles" is bad, just that Leone's onto something here -- his fake new wave accent somehow wrenches incredible fun out of the jokey elements of its assembly. At the other end of the spectrum, "Conversational" provides the album a sighing exit. It even has a verse, and a chorus, and the swelling of strings! But the synth pads still have a hint of distortion, and there's a neat baroque interlude that makes the song.
"Duyen" is the song that's been making the blog circuit over the past few months, and its chugging good-naturedness is an understandable advertisement for the tougher-to-digest but more-nutritious full-length. If "Duyen" shows Leone's camaraderie for Dan Deacon, it's Deacon in MFA/Meetle Mice form, not in "Wham City" form. Throughout the album, Leone's smooth vocals are present but not overemphasized (they're often layered in an obvious homage to Brian Wilson). But this is a good strategy, because it lets you investigate the songs' meanings over multiple listens. Underneath all the affect, a pop soul is hiding.
That's not to say that Dominique Leone is easy listening. The interruptions of squally noise, insistent treble pings, and the sudden shifts in texture and direction mid-song may well frustrate listeners. But stay with it. There's plenty to reward, and more to be discovered.