Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Review: Alaska in Winter - Holiday (* * * *)

One man band Brandon Bethancourt (Alaska in Winter) wrote his first album "in a tiny cabin out in the middle of nowhere Alaska," hence the moniker. His sophomore effort Holiday, released this past November, was recorded while Bethancourt was staying in Germany, hence song titles like "Berlin" and "Knorrpromenade" and the hausmusik influence. While he may wear his songwriting influences on his sleeve, Alaska in Winter's unique electro-rock sound is tough to categorize. With copious amount of auto-tune and vocoder effects and an abundance of drum machines, Holiday is a unique piece of indie electronica.

Because my love of electronic music does NOT run deep, I was a bit surprised at how much I enjoyed Alaska in Winter. There's something about Bethancourt's way with slowly building climaxes and repetitious beats and loops that enhances his often hyper-processed vocal melodies into something both fascinating and moving. Holiday's first half is its strongest, with the highlight being "Berlin," an entrancing six minute anthem featuring haunting vocal harmony and subtly progressing beats. Opener "We Are Blind and Riding the Merry-Go-Round" is another favorite, with Zach Condon (Beirut) contributing background vocals and ukelele and Heather Trost (A Hawk and a Hacksaw) on violin.

At times the album is fun and lighthearted, as in the playful "Speed Boat to Heaven" and the synth-party that is "Streetgang pt. 3," both of which are more straightforward and upbeat tunes. Other of Bethancourt's song are more difficult to work out, like the soupy "Knorrpromenade," which mashes banjo, beats, and keys in a slightly offsetting manner, or the dense, claustrophobic "Streetgang pt. 2." It's clear throughout the record that Bethancourt is attempting to wrestle all of his ideas into a manageable and digestible whole, and he generally succeeds despite the occasional scattered moment.

takes a few listens to truly discover, but the album's epic-yet-intimate songwriting and carefully constructed presentation are worth getting familiar with. Recommended for both indie pop junkies and electronica fans alike.

Head over to Spin.com to download "Berlin" for free!

Also, check out Alaska in Winter's MySpace page