Like RJD2 before him, Her Space Holiday mastermind Marc Bianchi has ditched his electronic side for structured, conventional songwriting on XOXO, Panda and the New Kid Revival. Gone is his depression-drenched past. In its place is a more upbeat and poppy sound. Armed with an acoustic guitar instead of a computer, Bianchi has assumed a new persona, XOXO, Panda, and enlisted a backing band primed to play his take on indie-pop, which clearly draws from contemporaries like Of Montreal and others. But this isn’t his first turn from one genre to another. Before recording as Her Space Holiday, Bianchi took part in California’s early ’90s hardcore scene as a member of Mohinder and Indian Summer, both of which have been defunct for years. So it only makes sense that he would jump from hardcore to electronica to indie-pop, right? If this album is any indication, the answer is more of a yes than a no, though Bianchi still has work to do if he wants his alter-ego to get anywhere.
Don’t get the wrong idea. XOXO, Panda is still an album worth hearing, just don’t expect anything life-changing. Instead, get ready to smile, sing along, and maybe even dance to most of the tracks here. Opener “The New Kid Revival” is the very definition of folk-pop, as handclaps fill the air behind Bianchi’s monotone but cheerful singing and acoustic guitar strumming. As the title-track, it’s also his chance to introduce himself and make a proclamation to any naysayers: “If they tell us that we’re doing it wrong / We’ll just turn up the sound of our songs”. His child-like glee rings true on other cuts as well, like the insanely fun “No More Good Ideas”, and “Sleepy Tigers”, which falls in line with “The New Kid Revival”.
As the album progresses, though, the rinse-and-repeat feel of some tracks can grow frustrating. Otherwise enjoyable songs like “The Telescope” and “The Year in Review” sound more like acoustic takes on Of Montreal b-sides. And that also applies to “The Heartbreak Moment”, a cute little number about lost childhood love that ends up going on for too long. Others, like “One for My Soul (Good Night)” and “My Crooked Crown”, are simply decent but not great. Tracks like these also show off Bianchi’s less-than-stellar vocals, which hardly change throughout the album. He sings much like a stoic Kevin Barnes, sans any range and emotion.
Bianchi and friends are truly at their best when they mix straightforward pop with some experimental touches, like the banjo on “The Truth Hurts So This Should Be Painless”. The plucking of the banjo doesn’t dominate the song, but it adds another layer. The chorus is also one of the most well-crafted hooks on the record. “The Boys and Girls” will find its way onto your morning playlist, particularly because Bianchi sweetly sings “good morning, good morning to you” as alarm clocks and jackhammers sound off. It also demonstrates his talent for crafting a slow-building track, beginning with subtle acoustic guitar before hitting a grand scale. Another instant favorite is “Four Tapping Shoes and a Kiss”, which sounds very much like a Jens Lekman ballad at first. But then it veers off that track and becomes playful and toe-tapping like the others. In terms of a broadened and developed style, however, “Two Tin Cans and a Length of String” easily wins the contest. Among other instruments, it features huge crashing drums and a glockenspiel, both of which add more substance to the track.
When the album concludes with “One for My Soul (Good Night)”, it hits you that XOXO, Panda really could have used some more variety. A tonal change in Bianchi’s vocals, for example, would have helped. And a few tracks could have been left off to create a leaner, stronger collection. But as a debut of his new sound, the album stands as a strong showing of his overall talent. The fact that he can switch up styles so frequently and make solid records says something special about Bianchi. Let’s just hope he spices it up more next time.