Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Review: Owen Pallett - Heartland (* * * * 1/2)

The shedding of the Final Fantasy moniker that once marked the solo work of Owen Pallett, regardless of what instigated it, is one I imagine won’t be as disruptive to his career as some. Pallett’s notoriety within the indie community, built both from the quality of his own releases and the gorgeous string arrangements he’s created for the likes of Arcade Fire and Grizzly Bear, has assured any work he now does to be quite transparent. Perhaps it’s fitting if not convenient, then, that Heartland should bear his own name, as it would seem to represent the completion of his transition into something more than a distinguished composer and arranger or even a violin virtuoso (though those skills are certainly on constant display throughout the record). The exquisitely crafted 12 tracks of the record make a solid case for Owen Pallett as songwriter, musician, and performer of considerable talent, one that has made his most accomplished and cohesive album with this latest release.

Right from the outset of opener “Midnight Directives,” Pallett introduces an approach quite different from his last two outings, with skittering electronic beats and synths now complimenting the signature violin and vocal combo that has so long characterized Final Fantasy. The effect shouldn’t be off-putting to longtime fans as the music retains a familiar edge, but songs like “Midnight Directives” and a similarly stylized track, “The Great Elsewhere,” are less obvious in their showcase of instrumental talent and more a compliment to Pallett’s songwriting and compositional abilities than many of his previous tunes. And while electronic instrumentation isn’t completely foreign to Pallett’s music, the frequency and depth with which he incorporates these elements throughout Heartland, even on the more organic songs, makes this project a progressive one in regards to his personal portfolio and results in an enjoyably inimitable listening experience by any standard. The lyrical peculiarity, familiar vocals, and swirling strings still evoke the unique musical personality that has and perhaps always will identify Owen Pallett, but he’s creating distance here, refusing to simply rely on past (and mostly successful) tricks and opening up a refreshingly ambitious new chapter.

Evolution alone isn’t what makes Heartland such a thoroughly stunning album, however, it’s the way Pallett so comfortably and confidently introduces this new approach while simultaneously offering his strongest collection of songs that truly impresses. While the record finds him delving even further into the depths of his fantastical imagination in the odd and twisted concept that winds its way throughout the album, the tracks themselves actually work as stand-alone pieces more consistently than before while remaining integral pieces of the story. Two clear standouts are “Lewis Takes Action,” with its Beach Boys-esque harmonies and engaging melody, and its companion piece and perhaps the most accessible track, “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt,” both excellent example of the warmer, more expansive “pop” sound Pallett embraces here, with the latter being very much removed from the sparse, classical style that classified his earlier releases. Between the swirling, energetic tracks that comprise the majority of the album, there are moments of familiar subtlety on balladry like “Heartland, Up Yours” and the heartbreaking “E is for Estranged” serving to give the record near perfect balance and pacing.

As is par for the course with Pallett, each moment of Heartland is exquisitely crafted and presented, and even with the complexity of more instruments and sounds, he restrains himself just enough to create consistently lush, detailed backdrops without overcomplicating things. There are many ideas revealed throughout the record, but never does it feel weighty or bloated during its 46 minutes. And while it’s probably accurate to say that the Pallett isn’t playing to his previously established strengths as often, Heartland doesn’t come across as a truly exploratory or experimental album. Rather, its progress simply shows that his considerable reach in no way exceeds his grasp and that his ideas sound just as wonderful in practice as they surely did in their conception, which is a rare thing indeed.

Last Word: Owen Pallett’s first album under his own name is his most accomplished release to date, a progressive and thoroughly entertaining record that combines remarkable musicianship with a newly found pop aesthetic.