God, it’s so easy to become jaded.
There’s an intimidating amount of music out there, so it’s pretty much impossible to keep up with every trend-setting release or critically acclaimed surprise. Point being, with downloads flooding my inbox and CDs cluttering my mailbox, it’s difficult not to get overwhelmed. Consequently, it’s just as easy to be underwhelmed by the quality of what’s coming through the speakers.
Ambient electronic albums are especially apt for such passive dismissal. A lot of artists in said genre are working from the same basic template: programmed drums, synthesizers, reverb-drenched vocals. And when you back yourself into a musical corner (as many electronic artists do from an instrumental/production standpoint), the element of surprise is a damn difficult quality to achieve.
With All Night, Houses (Chicago-based duo Dexter Tortoriello and Megan Messina) are not attempting anything radical or even remotely ambitious. This album is the very definition of a genre–the quintessential ambient electronic album–which makes it all the more surprising that it manages to feel so fresh and revitalizing. The textural gestures on display are all genre trademarks (the pitch-shifted acoustic instruments oozing through the opening title track, the clicky beats and synth bass throbbing in “Soak it Up”), but Houses manage to breathe mists of human warmth into these sonically chilly soundscapes.
They aren’t as “out there” as Boards of Canada, not as showy as Hot Chip, not as relentless as The Field. They’re also way catchier than pretty much any other electronic artist currently releasing music. It’s rare to find an album that works in such a variety of ways–as a bedtime headphone escape route, art show mood engager. Hell, even as chilled out party tracks. Sometimes, it’s all of these at once. “Reds” is basically a euphoric dance tune wrapped with an ambient bow on top, layering spaced-out vocals and acoustic piano lines over a synth bass pulse and what sounds a lot like heavily altered steel drums.
Perhaps the laid back, mildly groovy atmospheres shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. After Tortoriello got laid off from his day job, the duo fled for a remote Hawaiian cabin, where they lit candles, showered with rain water, and immersed themselves in a few disconnected months of music and art. All Night is the result: one of the most sonically captivating albums of the year.
“Endless Spring” most strikingly exemplifies Houses’ magic grip. In terms of production, the track blurs the line between what’s real and programmed, what’s sampled and/or treated with effects. You can still feel the strum noise on those pitch-shifted electric guitars–and wait, is that a real hi-hat? Close your eyes and you might get lost in the details. Surrender yourself and you’ll quickly realize “lost” is a pretty fine place to be.
Lyrically…well, All Night is an album built on sound, not sound meaning. Sometimes a word or two floats to the surface from the river of reverb, but it’s mostly just as textural as the music. For proof, consult “Reds”, where Tortoriello, sounding half-asleep and slightly high, murmurs the line, “Saw you on the old path, keeping up/With flowers in your hair and feathers in your mouth.”
Sure thing, buddy. Words don’t matter in the house of Houses, only moods and movements.