Pale Hands' moody indietronica LP Graphism reminds us that, in a time of frothing demagogues and unsightly political upheavals, there are still euphorias to chase
Following the presidential election, Pale Hands released a statement meant to accompany their sophomore LP Graphism, an eight-track expanse of shimmering synthpop retrofuturism and new wave melodrama that swells with John Hughes-era pulp. In it, the band members level a sobering question against themselves: “Should we be releasing an album of dance songs right now? Is this what we all need?" For Jen Johnson, Nick Murphy, and Mike Latulippe, the only response that seemed appropriate -- one not too dissimilar from Hillary Clinton's valedictory call for her supporters to "not lose heart" -- was to forge onward, release the LP, and do their part by donating the record's earnings to organizations like Planned Parenthood, the Trevor Project, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
It's a classy move, but one that should not distract from the thoroughgoing quality of Graphism's content. These are dance songs, as the band admits, but sometimes a dance song is all you need to remind yourself that, in a time of frothing demagogues and unsightly political upheavals, there are still euphorias to chase. Channeling influences that ran the gamut from latter-day electro-poppers like Chvrches and Class Actress to hallowed '80s acts like Yaz, OMD, and Blondie, Pale Hands have crafted a record of unselfconscious escapism that swaddles you in a glow of polychromatic melancholy before you even have a chance to realize the darkness has fled. Listening, it doesn't feel like you're ignoring the very real real-world issues that the country is facing; it feels like you're living through the various ecstasies, addictions, and heartbreaks that Johnson and her bandmates concoct.
The whole thing starts with a spark shooting out of thin air. "Dress Casual", the LP's first single, begins with a fidgeting synth figure that spills over itself like a nascent flame hoping to incite an inferno. Sonically, it's brimming with rich melodic geometries and sinuous dance-pop energy, but Johnson's vocal suggests that there's a festering sadness just inches below the track's veneer. Even when expressing affection, her voice sounds like it's encumbered by some untamable grief; she seems haunted by a loss that she can't quite put her finger on -- one that perhaps hasn't even occurred yet. "We act natural / Dress casual / That's what everybody wants this time," she sings. Coming from Johnson, it's a lyric that opens up more questions than it answers. What are these lovers trying to conceal? What hurt is hiding beneath their nondescript clothes and conspicuously stilted behavior?
Throughout, Pale Hands are at their best when they're following the formula heard on "Dress Casual" -- a fact that the band is probably aware of, given that the majority of Graphism tries to match its fizzy, four-on-the-floor appeal. "Windows" boasts a cascading verse melody so fluid that its constituent syllables seem to blur together into one crystalline current. "Shapeshifters", while more somber in tone, also adopts a similar synth-ballad-on-amphetamines structure. "Get your heart in the right place / And your head will follow," Johnson sings, straining to follow her own advice and mend her heart through the sheer force of her voice alone. On "Lower Than Low", she attempts to sing her way out of a parallel depression; her heart may be far from the right place, but she can see the light ahead of her and is hellbent on reaching it.
Graphism may not be the technicolor distraction you need in the wake of the election, but the melancholic pleasures it offers are real and enticing. This isn't mindless escapism; rather, it's escapism that will take you to dark places, bind you, and teach you how to appreciate the nuance of shadows. While the band does little to distinguish itself from the glut of other mood-heavy dance-pop acts out there, there's plenty to admire here. The answer to the band's initial question -- “Should we be releasing an album of dance songs right now?" -- may not be an emphatic "yes," but it's a "yes" that we should be glad the band believed in as well.