People will often hear music described as ‘cool’ or ‘calm’ and wrongly assume that those are euphemisms for ‘dull’. Crafting soothing sterling music is a Herculean task, given the anticipated snobbery, thanks, in part, to the endless recycling and repackaging of ‘cool mood’ or ‘chill mood’ CDs that score yoga classes or Anthropologie shops.
Just one listen to Gold Panda‘s excellent latest effort, The Work, will dispel any preconceived notions of dullness or tweeness. It’s a gorgeous, multi-textured record that’s lovely and welcoming. From the gentle opener, “Swimmer”, Derwin Schlecker sets a sun-dappled tone and maintains a comforting sound for the album. Humanity and kindness emanate from these beautiful tunes, which show off Gold Panda’s agility and skill in the studio. The effect of these songs is often hypnotic and captivating.
“Swimmer” is a great way to introduce The Work. Plucked strings and contemplative synths gently trickle and draw in listeners, inviting them to the project. The middle of the piece sounds like drops of water dripping in a cave. The effect is similar to a well-placed instrumental in an indie film trailer. Gold Panda segues seamlessly into the second track, “The Dream”, which seems to build off the sparer arrangement of “Swimmer” by adding more layers, coating the song with thin sheets of sound. Though thoroughly synthetic, there’s a fairly organic feel to “The Dream”, as if Gold Panda took on the tropes of folktronica but pruned the genre of its preciousness and instead, maintained a wit, as evident near the song’s end, when he pivots slightly, adding muted sound effects, including more elaborate synths which lend the piece a subtle sci-fi feel.
When we hear vocals on The Work, they are sampled from Dean Friedman’s 1978 love ballad, “Lydia” on “The Corner”. Gold Panda cleverly uses the older song to bridge his sound and the sunset-drenched tones of Friedman’s composition. His composition is a fizzy rush of synths and pianos that gurgle like a babbling brook.
Though The Work is an exercise in subtlety, there are moments when Gold Panda hints at the dance floor. “The Want” starts like improvised jazz before crystalline pianos waft by, and a mewing synth dominates. Skittering beats barely make their presence known, sounding like dry branches scratching at a roof in the wind. Gold Panda’s sawing strings should lead to a crescendo, but that never comes. Instead, the song maintains a controlled tone.
Far more energetic is the deconstructed house of “I’ve Felt Better (Than I Do Now)”. Gold Panda takes the sounds of the dance floor and chops and slashes and creates an exciting collage. It’s an homage to dance music and culture and stirs up the dreaminess of The Work. The snatched vocals and truncated melodies are squeezed into a relentless groove that periodically breaks out into snippets of samples, giving the song a feeling of turning the dial on the radio, gliding through different sounds and noises.
The dance of “I’ve Felt Better” is a pleasing disruption to the dominant tone of The Work. Still, the record shines best when Gold Panda creates mini-masterpieces of carefully arranged sound pieces, thoughtfully picking and choosing the kinds of seemingly disparate sounds that come together to create moments of contentment. Gold Panda operates like a miniaturist on “New Days”, creating a hushed and intimate work, swirling notes and crispy pops, each element meticulously inserted into the soundscape.
Gold Panda has broken up a significant hiatus of six years to deliver an album that doesn’t shout its presence through a megaphone but instead allows itself to sort-of permeate. It’s a profound statement but done with restraint. To close The Work, Gold Panda sums up the different notes and sounds he’s created for the album on the final track, “Joni’s Room”. He returns to the chimes, mutely pulsing beats, and frothy synths of previous tracks as if to craft a proper conclusion. It’s a meditative way to end a record, but fitting as The Work doesn’t end with a huge high note or a big bang but with a graceful fade.