Jupe Jupe – Crooked Kisses

On the surface, Jupe Jupe’s Crooked Kisses feels very familiar.  Broken down into its individual elements, songs like “Pieces of You” draws from sounds pioneered, re-hashed, or otherwise reminiscent of Franz Ferdinand, The Cure, and others in that vein.  The vocals, however, don’t sound as though they’re trying to affect Robert Smith, Dave Gahan, or David Bowie – not specifically.  The vocals have their own unique, understated personality.  They breathe out solid spans of simple melody, encouraging the both the frenetic energy of the guitars and drums – and the gradual, looming flow of a synth pad.

“Never Ask Why” begins with a pleasant distorted synth pattern ringing out through a light reverb and to one side of a plucked guitar.  The production has a clean, open feel – every instrument perfectly defined.  The sound is not, however, injected with the meaty, neon massiveness of The Crying Spell.  From an arrangement standpoint, this makes sense.  As the song progresses, you hear a recurring string-machine melody – very retro, indeed – gliding gently over the raucous start-and-stop rhythm of the song.  This record teeters between the soft touch and a hard brilliance from beginning to end.

The third track, “Love to Watch You Fall,” also begins with a minimal synth sequence – foreshadowing a future melody.  However, almost immediately you get a far less stern vibe from this song with its straight-rock beat and sixteenth note synth patterns.  From there it heads into a strange and perhaps tongue-in-cheek pre-chorus sung with monotone aloofness.  The chorus is even more colorful, with a playful, popping synth following the vocal melody.  It wasn’t so catchy on the first listen, but the song ultimately grew on me.  As we progress closer to the end, the addition of a squelchy synth to the left and double-time hi-hats gives the outro the perfect boost.

“Whispers Kill” starts off with what at first seems the perfect lead-in to a hard-hitting electro-dance-rock track… but the song is nothing of the sort.  A panning synth shifts from center to right, delivering an insistent low-note over a ghostly, distant shadow of a synth pad.  The drums cut in along with a low guitar, setting the stage for a “late-50’s-early-60’s-esque” pop aesthetic – replete with (synth) chimes, mellotronish flute and strings, and straight, no-frills guitar playing lock-step to the drums.  They are recreating something of that “American Graffiti” feeling here, by way of David Lynch and a little John Barry.  The tremolo guitar is the perfect addition, cementing a very carefully thought-out mood.  It’s strange and satisfying at the same time, and when the chorus arrives you really get the total vibe of groovy, Soviet-era romanticism; a love song between spies.  It’s playful, imaginative, and impeccably arranged.

By the fifth track, it’s clear that each song is a different entity, and not given over to a single formula or template.  Hit-or-miss, each track has a unique identity that rarely tips its hat towards the others.  “All The Things We Made” is articulate and dynamic, building from low verses to a marching, illuminated chorus.  Here and there I detect what I think is a timpani or large tom, thundering beneath the outro of the song.  It’s a wonderfully effective addition to the sound, giving the song a slightly cinematic feel.  Without getting insanely loud, the band manages to create the sensation of an intense swell before leaving on a warbly, over-driven note.

“Autumn October,” lush and dreamy, feels like a salve after the hidden darkness of the previous track.  This song, as with all of the songs, represents a specific relationship between quiet and loud; they all play with sonic density in a particular way.  As I listen through the album, the mix and mastering impresses me more and more.  I feel like my ears aren’t being inundated with noise in order to get across “toughness” or “intensity.”  All of that work is done in the arrangement.  There’s an aesthetic fidelity to the mix that allows the music to naturally form its own rising and falling action.

Returning to the post-punk dance floor, “Vicariously” is driving, leaning on a strained guitar line that steps down and back up – very minimal, reminding me of the Pixies for some reason.  The chorus is all 80’s synth pop, though, throwing-in claps and massive, synths.  The synth work, overall, is spectacular.  All of the synth parts standout on the record, holding up entire sonic ideas on their own and not merely complimenting the guitars.  This song in particular is one of the most energetic tracks on Crooked Kisses, and it’s placed at the right point on the album just before “Darkness.”

The eighth track divides its time between a David Bowie-type verse and disco-rock chorus that seems to split the difference between The Killers and Franz Ferdinand.  Although not my favorite song, there’s an undeniable, dance-inducing quality to it.  This song grows on me with repeated listens, and it may at some point become my favorite.  For now, though, I feel that this is the first instance where we aren’t exploring anything new on the record.  I have a feeling that when I return to this record in a few months time, I’ll be hearing it in an entirely different way – a testament to Crooked Kisses’ rich sonic fabric.

“Hollow” begins with a toy-like atmosphere – driven by the choice in synth patches and the bouncy drums.  Even so, the song empties out onto a gentle beach, vocals echoing over the horizon.  As though rolling on waves, we rise up into the chorus with its marching insistence.  I don’t know why I get this seafaring imagery from the song, but it does evoke that sensation of cruising over blue water, the sun glinting off waves in the distance.  The song is very catchy, and by the end I was humming along to the melody.  There’s something plain and honest about it, and enjoyable in that way.

The album ends with “New Stars in the Sky,” a song caught between the slow, moody vocals and the insistent sixteenth-note pattern.  There’s a little funk in there, England in the late-70’s.  The song is gloomy and sexy; something James Bond might have on his iPod.  It’s definitely one of my favorites, full of stylized heartbreak and classic cool.  It’s also a great song to end the record with, showing something a little different before departing.  “New Stars in the Sky” made me want to listen to the album over again.

Crooked Kisses is a mostly sleek and colorful record, full of surprises and variation.  I feel as though there are plenty of bands that tread the same territory, but few with the same imagination and personality.  The vocals never go wild with emotion, but they are not robotic and lifeless, either.  As a band, Jupe Jupe have created a lovely, sometimes dark, and open sound that stayed with me and didn’t wear out my ears.  No complaints here.

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The Crying Spell – Spectrums of Light

Assisted by immaculate mixing and mastering, synth-rockers The Crying Spell have built quite the machine with their new album, Spectrums of Light.  Each individual sound is carefully sculpted and meticulously positioned across the stereo field.  The sound palette dazzles on this record, tasteful and immediate.

There’s a great deal of deliberate care taken with the thumping presence of the drums, the electrifying synths, and the considerate guitar-work.  The majority of this sound is rooted in the staples of pop music: front-and-center vocals, relentless hooks, and straight dance beats.  The successful amalgamation of 80’s synth-pop, 90’s synth-rock, and new-millennium electronic alternative provides Spectrums of Light with a timeless quality.

While “This is Our Time” evokes the post-punk feeling like Joy Division (crossed with a little bit of Goldfrapp’s production style), “Sailing On” contemplates the off-kilter new wave influence of The Cure – while “Crash Into The Sun” explodes with the infectious, dance-inducing energy of New Order or Duran Duran.  In terms of today’s artists, The Crying Spell’s clean and majestic sound rivals that of M83 (who lack the powerful vocals of The Crying Spell) and Metric (who lack The Crying Spell’s clarity.)

It’s all well and good to throw out one comparison after another – but, speaking for myself, those are important to consider and weigh against the whole sound.  Homage is not a crime, and nostalgia is not a weakness.  Spectrums of Light, as a record, makes no effort to hide or obscure its wide breadth of inspirations.  This sounds like a record made by people who have always loved this particular kind of music and its many iterations and offshoots over the years, ready to take it to the next level.

Is there some sonic ground retread here?  Undoubtedly, but it is executed here with awesome conviction and respect, devoid of a heartless sense of irony.  The important part of this album, however, is what The Crying Spell has done to set itself apart.

“5:18 (Spectrums of Light)” starts the record with a waving synth pad, cycling beneath a cut-off filter pattern that gives it a backward feeling – suspended inside massive and reverberating darkness.  The vocals announce themselves inside a shifting, echoing cavern, spare and gradual.  As light synths shimmer and an electric guitar manifests in the distance, the kick drum counts out its four-to-the-floor beat.  Then a U2-ish double-echo guitar springs to life, gently fluctuating from side-to-side.

Each change – each added layer – is electrifying.  The song builds and builds, subsiding at around two minutes twenty-five, stripped back to synth particles and drums.  The vocals are quiet – more enmeshed in the mix than the songs to come, calling out a refrain that is buried, beautifully, beneath the production.  It’s a smart, calculated introduction to the singer’s voice, which indeed becomes louder and more upfront – beginning with the second track.

“Sailing On” is easy to follow, full of familiar rising-and-falling patterns of energy.  The song is also surprising atmospheric, with silky and gliding synth pads adding a vibrant texture.  The synth work – from the patches to the arrangement and performance – are second to none.  Nothing is wasted in terms of sonic real estate, and the effortless control exacted over each part guards the song against overwhelming your ears.

I’m a sucker for records where synthesizers, played by hand or sequenced, do a great deal of the heavy lifting in an arrangement.  Spectrums of Light hits that magic ratio of synth-to-guitar; the guitar is reserved for specific moments in a given song (like the bad-ass solo at three minutes two seconds) while all manner of synth parts continue to play throughout and provide the main melodic basis for the song.

The third track, “Elemental,” kicks off with a slightly dirty lead synth part that early Depeche Mode would have approved of.  Once stripped away, the lead line continues on a down-sampled FM piano, reducing the intensity while keeping the melody going – a very well thought-out bit of layering.  Songs like this demonstrate The Crying Spell’s ability to make themselves at home in the arena or in the club.

The chorus brilliantly splices a handful of different synth samples and sequences between vocals, breaking up the repetition of the song.  It’s utterly impossible to sit still while listening; I have to bob my head or tap my toes.  At all times I’m reminded of the strength of the mix – lush, reaching out for every magic frequency and dodging an excess of noise.

“This Is Our Time” has a more rock feel to it, guitars playing a bit of an expanded role in the song than they had previously.  Still, the synthesizers act out and draw attention to themselves with great confidence and to great effect.  The breakdown at two minutes twenty-three opens the song wide with a heartbeat kick thump pushing the song through a rich throng of synth atmospherics.  The song has a great driving energy, like revisiting golden, fond memories of summer road trips past.

Track five is “Crash Into The Sun,” kicking off with a noisy, high-pitched synth before diving into a steady dance beat.  Synth parts are icy and spacious, with a heavy low guitar during the chorus.  The distant guitars at two minutes twelve only stay for a couple of bars, but the help the song dramatically shift from the spacy, neon-drenched feel of the body of the song into something just a little different.

“Never Before” is the obvious single on the record.  But I’ve noticed that nothing on the record has felt like filler up to this point.  Everything I’ve heard has radio-feasibility, each song is strong in its own regard and has thus far completed the arch of the record in a satisfying way.  By the time we arrive at “Never Before,” however, we are ready for a bad-ass, life-affirmative anthem.  It’s one of those songs where the band probably had some idea of the sheer power they were summoning in process of writing it.  From the reliable, pleasant lead synth to the raucous chorus and even the hand-claps towards the end – they knew what this song was before it was completed and they nailed it.  It’s that strong of an idea.

Following on the heels of such a track is no easy feat, and luckily “The Dead War” is up to the task.  The album needed to revisit some darkness – some aggressiveness – at this point in the track-listing.  The more I listen to it, the more I like it.  There are subtle hints of Killing Joke here and there, nothing specific – but with it’s abundance of metal drum flourishes and squealing guitar solos, it represents a similar hybridization of heavy rock and the synthesizer.

Even then, it’s full of surprises – like the marching, funeral dirge at four minutes twenty-six with fluttering, bittersweet guitars and rolling snares, voices calling out.  It totally immerses the listener in a moment, full of powerful imagery that holds your attention.  At the moment, it’s my favorite song.

“We’re On Fire” recalls the skinny, stripped-down dance rock of Franz Ferdinand.  Even then, The Crying Spell brings more color and vibrancy to the table, whereas Franz Ferdinand (especially their vocalist) can sometimes sound a little dull, their energy muted.  The Crying Spell is predicated on strong ideas and strong executions, nothing limp or half-assed.  If the sound is going one direction or another, they commit to it and take that sound or arrangement to its logical extreme while maintaining a gold standard in sound quality.

“Lipstick Crush” is a lower, sexier song without quite the same positivity or bombast of the previous tracks.  At this point I realized Spectrums of Light is one of those classic – and I mean classic – road records.  It’s an album I would insist on bringing along for any road trip, because even here at the ninth song and first “low-point” – the beat is still keeping me pumped and alert.  I’m constantly engaged by the music, my interest never taking a nosedive.  The nods to 80’s pop are strategic and elegant, reflected in vocal echoes and the impeccable symbiosis between synths and guitar.

By track eleven, “Shatter,” we’ve been shaking ass for a good forty-three minutes.  This song, with its sparseness and cold, is positioned perfectly to bring the energy down as the album begins to draw to a close.  The shifting, hyper-real loneliness of the organ synth rings out in a pitch-black cathedral, further illuminated by the vocalist.  The refrain “give your love to me” is sung with a raw soulfulness, pitch perfect for the quiet desperation of the song.  Eventually, thin and dry bits of synthetic percussion permeate the darkness, driving a slow, life-support machine rhythm.  Okay… new favorite song.

“Butterfly Hurricane” brings back that energy we’ve grown to love and desire throughout Spectrums of Light.  Straight-synth patterns and bouncy drums get us nodding our heads again and singing along with the chorus.  Whether The Crying Spell are “dark” enough or “light” enough for you, it’s hard to resist such catchy music.  In the vast pantheon of pop music, this is perhaps the most enjoyable band in its class.  Beyond the technical excellence that marks this band and this record – they’re just a lot of fun to listen to.  You can read into the lyrics or not, you can have whatever kind of experience you want from this record – but the one thing this record won’t do is let you down.

Because Spectrums of Light refer to synth-pop from bygone eras, they are drawing on the collective consciousness of a generation that remembers and continues to pine for that “golden age” that some argue began with Joy Division and died with Orgy, only to be reborn with M83 and others in this, the present day.  But even Joy Division was inspired by The Sex Pistols, and they in turn had their influences and so on.

Bands that stake out new territory are always coming from somewhere.  The best of these bands have always sought to improve upon the past, thereby injecting something of themselves into the new iteration.  The Crying Spell, in my opinion, represent the absolute best “next step” for synth-rock that I have heard yet.  There’s clear evidence of their boundless imagination and precise craftsmanship in every second of every track.  A truly masterful record that combines technical sophistication with clear, audible artistic passion.  One of the best records of the year, guaranteed.