We still can’t shake the ’80s — and that might be a good thing. Chromatics’ Kill for Love, Twin Shadows’ Confess, and now Emeralds’ latest album, Just To Feel Anything, are all solid 2012 releases that rent out high rise condos overlooking sprawling metropolises, where the nights are mythical and the morning never comes. The Cleveland-Portland trio of John Elliott, Steve Hauschildt, and Mark McGuire pick up where 2010’s Does It Look Like I’m Here? left off, only now there’s a stronger focus that constructs something wholly pop.
That’s not such an alien thing to grasp. With the rise of EDM, and its infiltration into mainstream music, Emeralds’ stuff isn’t too far from the charts. It’s not your standard pop flair, and there isn’t even a hint of the wub wub signatures that today’s festivalgoers snort like the market’s best cocaine, but there are too many itchy riffs, hooks, and progressions to ignore. It recalls the work of one Jan Hammer, the Czech multi-instrumentalist whose theme to Miami Vice once topped the Billboard charts and earned him two Grammys, including “Best Pop Instrumental Performance”. It’s difficult, but just try and imagine something like this sharing radio space with the likes of Mr. Mister, Robert Palmer, or Whitney Houston.
But that happened, and so it’s not that unrealistic to imagine an act like Emeralds possibly doing the same. Granted, Hammer had a hit television show behind him, but instrumentally, the two entities aren’t too far apart. Emeralds’ soldering of vintage synths, atmospheric guitar work, and needling percussion here feel like short-lived soundtracks to pink-hued skylines, mercury coastlines, and neon-glazed cityscapes.
Whereas the three took many liberties with Does It Look Like I’m Here? — the 12-minute sprawling opus, “Genetic”, comes to mind first — they really push for succinct orchestrations on Just To Feel Anything, even if the tracks’ lengths average out to a whopping six minutes. It’s all in the DNA: ”Everything Is Inverted” paces forward with midnight guitar runs and dial-up keys that pulse and pulse and pulse, even welcoming drops and breakdowns; “Adrenochrome” sleeks on by with a kinetic rhythm section akin to Pet Shop Boys, leading to a mild breakdown of Hammer-inspired riffage; and the climber of a title track strangles its 8-bit hooks with heroic guitars and fantastical synth lines.
The album really peaks though in its most contemplative moments. Echoing Terje Rypdal’s iconic instrumental “Mystery Man”, the heartbeat rhythm of “Through and Through” might be the closest thing we’ve heard to a song actually crying. It’s aural fatigue, bottled up in under five minutes, that trudges through the motions. The windy synths, those calculated blues lines, and that quacking synth slowly prys at the soul. It’s a bit jarring on initial listen, especially since it arrives so early on in the album, but it’s later complemented by the album’s desolate Floydian closing track, “Search For Me In The Wasteland”.
It’s crucial to note how the album oscillates between the light and the dark. (In fact, that admirable facet might be what keeps this from ever being construed as a true pop album.) A track like “The Loser Keeps America Clean”, which sounds like a loose audio recording of David Lynch’s nightmares, switches shutter speeds with ease and bleeds straight into the lubricated cadence of “Just to Feel Anything”. This emotional game of Pong makes the trip back in time that much more exhilarating, and similar to Hauschildt’s 2011 exercise of the mind Tragedy & Geometry, it’s a journey worth revisiting time and time again — just remember your sportcoat and the keys to the boat.
Essential Tracks: “Just To Feel Anything”, “Through and Through”, and “Search For Me In The Wasteland”