Thursday, April 23, 2009

Review: Empire of the Sun - Walking on a Dream (* * * 1/2)

For those living outside of the U.S., or those who simply spend enough time perusing the online indie music scene, Australian electro-rockers Empire of the Sun may not be entirely new to you. Though the duo just recently released their debut album Walking on a Dream, in North America, the record has been available since 2008 in Australia and earlier this year in the UK - and has garnered no small amount of attention and acclaim. Their funky electronic sound has earned them copious comparisons to another popular duo, MGMT, for both their musical style and bizarre, over-the-top presentation on stage and in videos. While the two bands certainly have much in common, Empire of the Sun’s Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore have crafted a unique and ambitious collection of ten tracks for Walking on a Dream.

There are a great number of ideas packed into the album’s 43 minutes, but Empire of the Sun keep both the actual instrumental range and song structures fairly focused and direct. While several tracks, like the noisy “Delta Bay” and the groovy, oddball “Swordfish Hot Kiss Nite,” rely more on unusual sounds and strange effects to create unexpected detours, much of the record follows a relatively more uniform template that produces the best tunes. Both the album’s smooth, funky title track and the slinky “We Are The People” incorporate disco grooves, falsetto vocals, and a variety of guitars into mid-tempo synth-rock songs that serve as some of the more immediate album highlights. Elsewhere, the band turn up the bass for “Half Mast,” get psychedelic on “The World,” and throw in a cheesy 80s pop ballad, “Without You,” to close the album.

Though he has a similar high-pitched tenor as MGMT’s Andrew VanWyngarden, Steele uses a more dramatic, affected vocal style for most of the record, which can get a bit grating on more emotionally charged tracks like “The World,” but adds to the spacey, expansive presentation more often than not. The real star on most of the tracks is the music, however, which is generally sharp, expressive, and fun. One of the more interesting cuts on the record is actually the instrumental “Country,” in which layers of electronics and synths are added to create a fascinating, textured soundscape. Their musical explorations may occasionally misfire, but the duo prove that they deserve our attention.

Empire of the Sun are a band who sound well aware of their strengths and choose to capitalize on what they do best here, smooth, cool electronically-inclined pop music. They may not hit it out of the park with every swing, but there’s plenty on Walking on a Dream to make me inclined to keep an eye on these two. If you haven’t checked them out yet, head over to their MySpace page to hear some tunes!