Sometimes you find beauty in the strangest places. Pole Position's XO is an entrancing debut album born from the bastion of enlightenment known as New Jersey. The Luso-American duo has crafted a narrative populated with unforgiving cityscapes, lost loves, and ill-fated adult video stars superimposed on a soundtrack of relatively sparse keyboards and drums. Daniel DaSilva handles vocals and alternates between synthesizer and piano while Rui Guerreiro provides drums (they are occasionally augmented by bass and, to my ears, there isn't a note of guitar on the album), though not without hinting at their culture's rich musical heritage.
They claim their "influences range from Portuguese fado and Brazilian bossa nova to Krautrock, '70s Italian pop, prog rock, crypto-homo rockers, and fierce determination". (What's a crypto-homo rocker?) For all their name-dropping, however, the most immediate point of reference seems to be mid-period Radiohead. You can't fault a young band for emulating one of the most relevant acts of the past decade, but the falsetto vocals and tense piano (particularly on "Heartz Attack") clearly recall Thom Yorke at his most introspective.
The simultaneously lush yet cold arrangements (as well as a penchant for substituting "z" for "s" when forming the plural) also serve to loosely align the band with a nascent new wave revival which may be a bit premature. Like the best tributes, XO succeeds in replicating the spirit of its inspirations rather than opting for rote yet uninspired reproductions. DaSilva's vocals in particular share the same fey detachment of New Romantic poster boy David Sylvian without ever aping his delivery. Similarly, the lyrical content of much of the album is liberally drawn from the Kraftwerk/Gary Numan school of neon lit cities and gleaming automobiles.
The band also has a keen understanding of dynamics which stretches beyond the quiet/loud dichotomy that most bands have learned to settle for. "Boulevard" features more lifts and falls than your favorite rollercoaster and "Move Enough" has a muffled yet majestic chorus. The album is filled with the sort of subtle nuances which only reveal themselves upon further listening (and also serve to make the mini-album a better value than you would expect). "The Nerve" sports a deceptively simple yet expressively jazzy piano and "Time Travelz" weaves an intricate piano melody against an equally sophisticated vocal.
The eight songs on the relatively short disc (clocking in at just over 25 minutes) deftly manage to straddle the fine line between pointlessly retro and hypnotically timeless. It's a trick that many less gifted bands would be hard pressed to pull off. Repeatedly the songs manage to feel familiar yet innovative. The cheesy synth of "Electric Do" transcends kitsch and instead its reedy lo-fi tone is wholly appropriate. If the album does have a fault it is perhaps that the individual tracks do not stand apart from each other well enough. "Tragic Death of Porn Starz" substitutes a drum machine for its human equivalent but for the most part songs merely distinguish themselves from each other by the tempo employed and little else. With a bit more confidence and willingness to expand Pole Position could be a band to keep your eye on. Anything less would be a disappointment.