Review Summary: Fallout in full 3D color.
For a band with a sound that generally fell in that indistinct blogosphere sweet spot between “dreamy” and “hazy,” Portland, Oregon quartet Radiation City did their cribbing better than most. On 2013’s sophomore effort Animals in the Median
, the group continued to chip out their own niche with a heavy serving of retro psychedelic pop, interstitial bits of analog glitch, and a considerable dollop of space-age weirdness that called to mind icons like Stereolab and the Human League in more than one reviewer. It was a simultaneously well-worn yet vibrant sound, best exemplified in the music video for “Zombies,” a brilliant take on a heartrending song that mixed past and present visual and musical tropes to beguiling effect. Their new album, Synesthetica
, seizes on the promise of “Zombies,” amping up the ‘60s pop bedrock in the band’s DNA – the Beach Boys, the Velvet Underground, the Mamas and the Papas – with a rich production aesthetic and some of the most unabashedly sugary hooks in the band’s discography.
Named for the neurological condition where an individual who has one sense stimulated experiences an involuntary stimulation of another sensory pathway, Synesthetica
doesn’t announce itself subtly. “Oil Show” is an appropriate representation of the album’s namesake, brimming with ideas and layers upon layers of melodies and instrumental fidgeting, singer Lizzy Ellison’s sparkling vocals providing a pleasant road map. Ellison, whose experience of seeing specific colors when she hears different musical sounds inspired the album title, is the thread that keeps “Oil Show,” and Synesthetica
, from collapsing in on itself. Where past albums tended to ebb and flow, Synesthetica
rarely lets its foot off the gas. “Juicy” is a slow roiling lullaby that builds its crowd-pleasing vocal lilts into a boisterous anthem, Ellison soaring over a drunkenly tilting chorus. The luxuriant strings and fat synths that bubble over the blue-eyed soul of “Butter” – a production choice that aligns the song with any number of classic James Bond themes – make one wonder how Ellison, with her condition, can adequately keep her sh
it together when performing live.
Yet Radiation City rarely let their at times heavy-handed studio work overwhelm the songs themselves. Where Animals in the Median
often disguised the classicism in its songwriting with futuristic effects and brooding undertones, here the band builds that weirdness into the structure of the songs itself, and without undermining a series of golden hooks. The dichotomy between the Phil Spector-esque wall of electronic effects and shimmering synths, spliced against Ellison’s arch West Coast pop warning on “Separate,” expertly highlights this combo. “Come and Go,” another track that exploits the lovely combination of Ellison’s crystalline vocals with bandmate (and romantic partner) Cameron Spies’ more nonchalant approach, masks lyrics rife with dark, vaguely threatening imagery via an absolute earworm of a chorus. Occasionally, the group’s mishmash of styles comes off as heavy-handed; the Leave It To Beaver
-core of “Futures” is so sickly sweet as to rot, and the emotional catharsis it strives for in its verses is undercut by that rictus grin of a chorus. Even Synesthetica’s
misfires, though, are just charmingly inconsequential, a song like “Sugar Broom” less of a failure than a killer hook in search of a fuller song.
In the tradition of any number of albums with a lot of baggage – Spies and Ellison temporarily broke up during its recording, one band member was let go, and the creation of the record itself was done piecemeal – Synesthetica
comes awfully close to falling apart at the seams. But even with the steam the record loses near its end, its willingness to go for broke seals it as the group’s most thrilling and cohesive record yet. Consider second single “Milky White,” a song that comes off as so overtly glam as to be blinding, but revels in the details that crisscross underneath that pulsating beat: the glitchy, thick drum sound, the organs and synths flitting back and forth, that snarling guitar riff and that arena-ready hook, sung in a call-and-response that begs to be replayed. It’s a hodgepodge of ideas that should rightfully result in an overcooked mess. Radiation City instead make its addition seem seamless, a part and parcel with their history and current direction. That one can actually imagine “Milky White” filling up those arenas it aims for is a happy bonus.