New Politicians – Remission

After a long, long hiatus I have returned to my music review blog. My absence owes to a lot of creative projects demanding my attention, and it’s frankly taken the better part of a year to sit down and start writing again. One thing that prompted me was the return of New Politicians with the record Remission. They asked for my opinion, personally, and so I listened a few times and gave it some serious thought.

Right out of the gate, I remarked to them my struggle with the vocal mix. Much like Drag A City, the band’s previous record, New Politicians have a (pleasantly) straight-forward vocalist leading simple yet effective melodies across wide fields of ringing guitars and washy drums. The vocalist is not Scott Walker – and the music isn’t Einsturzende Neubauten – so there is neither the occasion nor desire for every syllable of the vocalist to be perfectly audible. But as I listened, I couldn’t help but wonder what they’re hiding (not out of shame, but simply in the course of their effects choices) when they dump grand hall-scale reverb on the vocal channel.

So I went back to my old review for Drag A City and did a comparison of reactions. What I realized then, which I had somehow forgotten, was that one of New Politicians’ hallmark sonic choices was to hold mood and atmosphere up on the same level as catchiness or pop structure. Their priorities are evident in their mix, and one can easily determine that while some choices are “heavier” than others, New Politicians are not “extremist” in their aesthetic views. Having the potential for pop appeal does not eclipse their love for building environments and cinematic mood – items that do not register as having particular importance to pop audiences who often want to feel like the singer is belting out whole notes right into their ear-drums.

I got over the vocal mix and started to consider the larger sound and the dreamy, distant quality of the vocals as a fixture inside of the bigger picture. Beginning with “Revelator,” we’re confronted first by a dusty, droning guitar finding it’s rhythm just in time for drums to roll in and pick things up considerably. It’s a rocking opener, something appropriate (given that it’s played loud enough) for an old highway cutting through desolate American desert, presumably on a pilgrimage to Joshua Tree. The drums are balanced and temperate, never rising too far above their insistent rumblings or shimmerings, riding thunder into lightning.

Increasingly, other bands have started to converge on similar territory (Ticktockman’s Faded Shapes comes to mind) – but these bands, in an effort to set themselves apart, have leaned more and more on synthesizers and truly alien guitar effects. New Politicians, conversely, have a fairly pure rock sound – on the surface. But beneath the sweeping guitars and spare, cavernous vocals lies the faintest hint of a synth pad or sample. It has the “forth dimensional” effect of being invisible but still having a profound impact on the sense of space and scope. It’s a simple thing, too. This is the kind of subtlety and “detail-orientedness” that sets New Politicians apart – just not in any immediate or obvious way. Their magic creeps on you.

By “Cut A Hole,” you realize the vocal reverb situation isn’t meant to protect the quality of the singing from the notice of the listener, and it isn’t meant to temper the ferocity of the vocalist (of which there is little to temper.) That distance has been instituted, from song to song, simply to drive a retro-ish, mystical feeling that gradually strikes one as being timeless. Perhaps the vocals were tracked in late 1960’s Los Angeles; early-80’s Manchester, even; or were they part of the 80’s post rock resurgence of the early 21st century? You get the point. In the same way that Sinatra’s voice transcended the recording technology of his time, New Politicians have harnessed a similar power for their own, and in a way appropriate within their genre.

While the second song drags at it’s spot in the order, there’s an undeniable logic to following Revelator with a sluggish, mournful response. The song, by itself, is quite beautiful – with crashing, tumbling choruses that descend, shimmer, and burn. The guitar solo at two minutes and thirty-five seconds is gentle and pushed deep inside the approaching dust storm. There is a humility to the guitars that I find refreshing, without being totally pedantic and obvious (I’m looking at you, Coldplay). The bass guitar, with its broken rhythm, bumps and rolls intermittently – which, in itself, creates a clear line-of-sight for the drums. A fabulous arrangement.

“Been in the Wars,” it would seem, wastes no time in picking up the energy again, to the point where you may feel pushed and pulled extensively by the drastic shifts in feeling from one song to the next. I didn’t resent that, but it makes the track ordering seem very suspicious to me. Why is that important? Because they didn’t put out a single or maxi-single – they put out a 7-track record. The juxtaposition of one song after another has a power – sometimes to tell a story explicitly or build a modular arch of energy you could graph. Remission’s trajectory is scattered and full of surprises. Depending on the mood of the listener, this can either be invigorating or irritating. Even now, I struggle with my own feeling about this where Remission is concerned.

This third track, the album’s most brisk and bright, has the feel of added clarity – the guitars slightly less jangling and a bit more hard and “sharp,” cutting with a bit more ease as it incises the mix. There’s that sense of riding along vast stretches of sun-bleached, two-lane blacktop while prairie winds briefly interrupt that feeling of being scorched alive. The bands cuts out at just a few second prior to the four minute mark, emptying to silence, before reemerging from the darkness with a filtered, humming, twisting sonic apparition that sounds like a magical confluence of sampled guitar and synth with a little bit of human voice thrown in. I love it, but I haven’t listened to it enough times to discern what he’s saying.

“Images” slows to a crawl so we can live in some of that oppressive heat – well into the night, along the curbs of suburbs and into bedrooms and smoking a cigarette at the wheel of a car that might not start. This song, apparently, drums up a bit of nostalgia for me, maybe because of a passing resemblance to some of the aesthetic experimentations of Lansing-Dreiden’s Incomplete Triangle and the role that record played in my young adult life. It’s a slow, weary stumble down the cool, disaffected emptiness of memory lane, and it’s spot-on.

At track five, “Killer on the Mend” is among my favorites from the album – a slow ride, to be sure, but also a gentle glide over and through the Black Hills, spare white clouds dotting an impossibly open, impossibly blue sky as the sun shrinks from its violent rage into the embrace of the horizon. At two minutes-nine second, a passage opens filled crashing cymbals and cascading guitars and what may be the faintest hint of organ ushering us to the exit for an expansive outro.

The title track starts off with a lovely pair of alternating chords, and features some of my favorite vocals from album. They seem more assertive here, a little more daring and melodically/dynamically ambitious. These chorus pop, explode with slow-motion flames and sparkling showers of glass and dust. And for all its relative bombast, Remission’s title track still has that same open, pleasant appeal that has been spread evenly across all seven songs. The bridge at three minutes and forty-four is massive and bittersweet, chill-inducing stuff. A glorious fall, for miles and miles, to the earth. It is perhaps the most rousing and elevated point in the topology of the record, and suddenly the album’s trajectory makes sense to me: everything was pointing here. After diving into its most beautiful and expansive moment, the song lets-off the gas and we’re left with half-a-minute of the whispers and echoes of whispers of what came before.

“The Idealist” closes out the album with an unsettling chord progression, waltzing through the ruins of sand-covered Victorian ballrooms. It’s a strange, Ballardian mishmash of Old World elegance and modern American deterioration. After the title track’s heightened emotion, The Idealist seems caught between genuine distress or grief and genuine ambivalence, with verses that drop their vocal melodies at the end of each stanza like “what the fuck is this thing and what good is it anyway?” before rushing into romantic, spinning choruses – like leaping out of the heart-dead now and into pools of the past that seem more alive than the present.

And then it was over. Well, almost – New Politicians have taken to a “false” ending motif across three of their tracks that seems to hint at some other reality just beneath the drape of this one. And again, New Politicians are all about the little details, even when the immediate effect of their music is an overwhelming wall of sound. These little “tails” holding onto the last few moments of songs like “The Idealist” hint at other things – strange and new. In its entirety, Remission is a very satisfying record that manages to both intrigue and satiate. New Politicians continue to build and refine a sound that, while fresh and wild on Drag A City, has matured and emboldened itself considerably on Remission.