Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Review: Passion Pit - Manners (* * * 1/2)

I can’t say this with the appropriate perspective, but I would agree that quite often, youth is indeed wasted on the young. Not so for Michael Angelakos, however; he seems to be determined to make the most of his. The talented 21 year-old musician and frontman of electro-rock outfit Passion Pit is not only enjoying early critical and (relative) commercial success, but he is – apparently - having a great time doing it. Last year’s Chunk of Change EP introduced us to a fresh-faced, high-voiced kid with a love for gooey sentiments and danceable synth-pop, making music for his girlfriend and gaining a legion of followers in the process, then hooking a record deal and releasing a well-received debut album that is sure to be the soundtrack to many a youthful summer. It all sounds like the plot to a bad teen comedy, but Manners is the kind of record that should be taken seriously, not only for its startling popularity, but because it’s quite good.

I imagine it’s easy to get noticed, for good or ill, when you’ve got pipes like Angelakos, who carries an almost shrill, child-like voice falling somewhere in the ‘impossibly high’ tier of vocal performances. His earnestly delivered wail will be an immediate deal-breaker for some and even fans may have a tough time sitting through an entire album’s worth, but his bright, sunny voice is unique and can be strangely addicting if you give it much of a chance. Also, Angelakos knows how to vary his tone from song to song, tempering it when necessary and only occasionally stretching himself too far. Openers “Make a Light” and “Little Secrets” are decent tracks that could do with less high-pitched yearning, but later on the record, as with “Eyes as Candles” and “To Kingdom Come,” the vocal delivery is much less explosive and more palatable as a result.

Though his voice is certainly the most unique aspect of Passion Pit’s exuberant pop style, it’s Angelakos’ gift for writing catchy melodies and talent with electronic arrangements and samples that make Manners a record worth exploring. Lead single “The Reeling” is an excellent example of the band’s appeal, full of both synthesized and organic percussion, horn samples, and layers of electronic riffs that come and go, constantly and pleasurably churning under the appropriately wide-eyed lyrics. Similarly, the excellent, climactic “Moth’s Wings” and the eighties-esque pop tune “Eyes as Candles” meld what should be a distracting amount of somewhat disparate influences into an entertaining musical backdrop that occasionally threatens to compete with the lyrics for attention. Angelakos and company may be offering a heavier dose of tooth-decaying musical gooiness than some would prefer, but their skill and energetic presentation makes it difficult to dislike.

There are some missteps here, like the previously mentioned “Make Light” and the plodding “Swimming in the Flood,” but they’re few and far enough between that the momentum of the album never really flags. The decision to include “Sleepyhead” may have been a poor one considering how out of place it feels among the new material, but given its popularity around the blogosphere, it’s tough to blame the band for its appearance here. Also, for every weak spot, there’s a more impressive tune to follow, literally. “Fold In Your Hands” picks things up with its funky swagger and harmony-heavy production while closer “Seaweed Song” ends things on a high note, with an irresistibly catchy chorus and pleasantly sappy lyrics.

Ultimately, Manners is an album that wears out its welcome by the end of its 45 minutes, but is an absolute blast when digested in smaller pieces. Mostly, it solidifies Passion Pit and especially Michael Angelakos as legitimately exciting and unique newcomers to an electro-pop genre in the midst of an absolute explosion. Uplifting and grin-inspiring while simultaneously well produced and presented, this is music that bodes great things for this young band’s future and nearly lives up to the amount of hype surrounding it – an accomplishment in and of itself.

Last Word: Passion Pit’s debut LP, Manners, is a slightly uneven, but enjoyable set of tunes that showcases the band’s talents and shows marked improvement over last year’s Chunk of Change EP.