Review Summary: Lyrics shaky in places, but the multilayered blend of analog and digital sounds is satisfying and unique.
Discovering a passion for making electronic music in school at 15, Daniel Hunter moved quickly, developing a MySpace following under the name PlayRadioPlay! and signing with Island/Stolen Transmission at 17. The Frequency EP and the album Texas hit over the next two years, debuting at #6 on the Billboard Electronic charts and #157 on the Hot 100 respectively. By late 2008, it looked to be all over, as Hunter described his relationship with the label as "a nightmare."
With a name change and a musical shift, and freed of the restrictions of a label, Hunter has put out 61 tracks in 2010 alone, and it's only June.
The most important of these 61 tracks are the 12 songs and 3 segues in Ancient Electrons, which set Hunter sailing in a direction completely different to his PlayRadioPlay! work. Most evident is the lyrics, with reduced cheesiness, and increased use of guitar, which has been shifted to a main role instead of the accent role it played in Texas. Less obvious is the improved production, focusing more on well-crafted background details and ambient textures than the glossier electropop of PRP. The synthesizers are still present, but in a more background atmospheric way than the current pop music trends of spare, unsubtle synths and video gamey beeps. Dan Hunter is a man unchained, free to indulge his more experimental tendencies, free from having to deliver a radio single and airbrushed public image.
The strongest point of the album is the way Hunter has defined himself musically, comfortably mixing digital and analog sounds in a way that sounds perfectly natural. The two components of the sound fit together naturally, helped along by the Beatles-like continuous flow of the tracks and swirling ambient textures. The best tracks are diverse but still grounded in this hybrid style: "A Particularly Long Elevator Shaft" adds a poppy guitar hook to the catchy electropop of PlayRadioPlay!; "The Parasite Life" shows off Dan's voice, still mistakeable for a woman's but newly devoid of the overwrought pronunciation of his previous work; and the album-best "Marla Singer Doesn't Take Standardized Tests" begins at walking pace before growing into a pounding, stadium-worthy guitar solo crescendo reminiscent of Death Cab at their hardest.
In "I Am A Ghost," he sings "You are the most beautiful thing I have seen in a while," and "I've got bodies in the back of my Cadillac," coming off as vulnerable and aggressive, but it's clear these are the words of a persona rather than a real creep. This persona is present throughout the album, which is loosely themed around Hunter leaving his sugary past and high-school crush lyrics behind and becoming a tortured outsider to the world. He becomes an observer, watching his messy, drug-addicted past resolve itself into straight lines as his music descends from sparkly synths into a fuzzed-out underworld of guitars and darker lyrics.
It works, but he is less effective when he goes for higher-concept lyrics and sounds, finding it hard to pull off three segues along with some intro/outros which don't really fit with the rest of the song. The low points lie often in the lyrics, with some tracks seeming to bring in meaningless verses just to fill the space, and others going too far off the cheese-o-meter. "A Real Clever Trick Fur A Bear" features a useless pun in the unnecessarily long title, and rambles on about clever ads for beer and something called "conduit space", mixed in with a bunch of cliches. Some of the song titles seem a little pretentious, and his use of the word "***" in places seems calculated to give him more of an edgy feel than any actual emphasis, but it's all in good fun.
Hunter wants Analog Rebellion to stand completely separate from PlayRadioPlay!, understandable given the genre-hop from electropop to what he calls "Stadium Lo-Fi," but ultimately Ancient Electrons is about leaving PRP behind. Just as every fresh start in life is coloured by past experiences, Ancient Electrons is not a full reversal, but a dramatic evolution towards a better refined future. The album mixes synthesizers with harder guitars like Muse, and shares the poppy edge of Two Door Cinema Club, but with greater subtlety and more complex, layered arrangements. Hunter's voice and lyrics evoke Ben Gibbard at times, but hasn't stolen his shuffly beats or vocal tics like Owl City has, mixing Gibbard's borderline-cheeseball sensibility with something a little more laid back. With development, Dan Hunter will push the boundaries of his production and genre farther and refine his concepts until it all goes down easy, but for now the lightly thematic subject matter and well-crafted arrangements and hooks continue to reveal more depth with every listen.