Portland-based band the Helio Sequence want their songs to be a lot of things -- poppy, atmospheric, layered, complex -- but most obviously, they want their sound to be greater than the sum of its parts. This is true for a lot of two-piece acts -- Lightning Bolt comes to mind, as do the ubiquitous White Stripes and fellow Portland outfit Quasi. A band like Lightning Bolt seems to apologize for the size of their line-up, overcompensating for only having two members by bombarding listeners with stomach-clenching noise and arrhythmic clatter. The White Stripes also seems to have some size-anxiety, trying too hard to please by combining simple beats with ready-to-order, hyper-stylized noodling à la Jimmy Page. Quasi, on the other hand, plays as if two were the magic number. Buoyant keyboards, athletic drumming, sweet harmonies, and cynical lyrics all combine in perfect proportion to hit the sweet spot of pop perfection again and again. Brandon Summers and Benjamin Weikel of the Helio Sequence follow the Quasi school of dual adroitness to similarly successful ends. But where Quasi relies on a well-orchestrated synthesis to execute their cute and clever tunes, the Helio Sequence chases the tense beauty that comes through the careful combination of paradoxical elements. At once airy and dense, coy and flagrant, antique and contemporary, the Helio Sequence are at their best when their psychedelic songs incorporate disparate sounds, themes, and arrangements.
Happily, most of the songs on their new record, Love and Distance, do just that, making their follow up to 2001's Young Effectuals a very pleasant record to listen to. It may not entirely seem like a compliment to call a record pleasant, but understand that I mean it in the most positive sense of the word. Pleasant in that it would make for a good soundtrack to a long drive out of the city with a car full of friends, or switching on the record player while making coffee and eggs for your sweetheart after a lazy morning in bed. It is pleasant because it is effortlessly pretty without being cloying or desperate for attention.
For all of its pleasantness, however, Love and Distance is not a package that comes without a few significant pitfalls, and unfortunately for listeners, one of the biggest boo boo's occurs at the beginning of the record. One hates to be a naysayer concerning such a versatile and spirited instrument as the harmonica, but whoever chose the too-aptly titled "Harmonica Song" as the opener to this album made the unfortunate choice of priming listeners' anticipatory ears with what turns out to be the weakest song on the disc. This is a shame, because the rest of the record is really good and a careless listener could easily get the wrong idea by judging the record on its introductory track alone. The song starts out with a disconcertingly forthright dub/electro/harmonica hootenanny, topped by soulful vocal stylings that sound like they were borrowed from the mouth of Bryan Adams or John Cougar Mellencamp. This jam portion of the song thankfully doesn't last long, giving way to a much prettier instrumental melody before winding down to make way for the much better songs to come.
"Repeater" fares vastly better than its predecessor. A playfully layered pop song that showcases Brandon Summers in much better light, the song features shimmering electronic blips and a buoyant beat that propels the song to a sweetly old-school finale that ends with the triumphant declaration "I know there's an answer". Brian Wilson couldn't have said it better himself. "Don't Look Away" is a glorious mish-mash of gliding guitar and playful electro-pop. Benjamin Weikel's drumming, also featured in the newest Modest Mouse lineup, provides a nicely elusive downbeat that is never quite apprehended by the roving melody, giving the song an atmospheric quality that builds steadily towards the song's end. "Let It Fall Apart" features a similar electronic banter in the beginning, before literally falling apart into a kind of instrumental call and response that strangely sounds like the prettiest video game soundtrack you've ever heard.
"Everyone Knows Everyone" utilizes the harmonica to a much better end than the album's opener, adding a folksy layer of noise to a tuneful melody that seems to march along like a laidback west coast hipster walking to the bar where everybody knows her name. "The People of the Secret" is a coyly poetic little ballad whose only fault is that it sounds a little too much like Beck in his "Devil's Haircut" period.
By the time you get to the next song, "Blood Bleeds", some of the novelty of the breathy vocals and lovingly crafted electronic soundscapes has worn off, but it doesn't really matter because these songs are the kind that are meant to wash over you congenially, not call you to attention with their startling new revelations about rock music. The revelations, it turns out, are hiding at the tail end of the record. "So Stop" and "Looks Good (But You Looked Away)" are filled to the brim with clever hooks and a startling array of new sounds, including an electronic harpsichord, some expertly placed strings, and a sultry slide guitar dripping with reverb. Additionally, Summers's voice has never sounded as good as it does when he lets it linger on the low notes, as he does on both of these tracks, making for a swooningly good last impression that lasts even as the music stops and airy wind chimes signal the record's end.