Author: Adam Moerder
04/10/2009 | Pitchforkmedia.com | www.pitchfork.com | Album Review
Whatever prejudices you've built up about Saddle Creek, chances are they're outdated. The label's current overhauled lineup stumps a lot of casual fans, its stylistic (and geographic) makeup undergoing a marked change since Conor Oberst started devoting more time to his Team Love imprint. Singer-songwriter Orenda Fink, with Azure Ray and her left-of-center solo pursuits, has always had one foot in Bright Eyes/Rilo Kiley-style signature Creek folk while the other wades into murkier waters. She's been both part of the label's traditional bedrock and an augury of its (still ongoing) makeover. Teamed with Scalpelist (new random moniker of Cedric LeMoyne, formerly of Remy Zero) as O+S (get it?), Fink once again strives for an artistic obliqueness that staves off obligatory Saddle Creek teen TV drama soundtrack jokes while still sounding undeniably like an Orenda Fink record.
While her brooding solo album Invisible Ones introduced us to a more spiritual Orenda Fink, the new wrinkle this time lies more within the instrumental arrangements. Sharing an interest in field recordings, shoegaze, and David Lynch soundtracks, Fink and LeMoyne's mission is to couch her folksy pop in vast, surreal sonic environs. When they keep this goal in mind, they get results. Fink's lethargic melodies lend themselves to the dream-pop of Julee Cruise or even Ladytron, and the café conversations, street clamor, and other field recordings peppered throughout the album provide an ethereal feel that Invisible Ones sorely lacked.
On the Lynchian end of the spectrum, heady standouts "New Life", "Survive Love", and "Knowing Animals" make good on the collaboration's phantasmal promise. "New Life" opens the album with sluggish drum loops and an eerie Dopplering ambience that casts Fink as a kind of schizophrenic Enya. "It's not a new life/ It's the same old one," she sings, while the track, along with synth-laden 1980s hymn "Survive Love" and the Portishead-inspired "Knowing Animals", suggests otherwise. Yet vestiges of Fink's more staid material crop up on the album despite the duo's best attempts to hedge them with their new quirks. "The Fox" and "My Friend" sound like Fink leftovers, bare-boned coffeehouse fixtures that have little use for LeMoyne's contributions. While the songwriting on "Lonely Ghosts" stays in cruise control, they spruce up the unspectacular piano ballad with a screeching UFO-like sound effect and off-kilter harmonies, though the track doesn't feel like the most effective appropriation of these new tools.
Those blander tracks not only disrupt the album's ethereal tone, they basically contradict O+S's raison d'être. Whether it's the newfound rhythm on "Permanent Scar" and "What Do We Want To" or the unsettling moodiness of the aforementioned highlights, there are moments here that rank as Fink's most dynamic to date. After all, a few years ago it'd be unfathomable to see the Notwist, Portishead, and M83 mentioned in the same review as either of these artists, but the similarities are here and they're the best product of the collaboration. Always the intrepid mind, Fink has found a promising partner in LeMoyne to bring out her weirder side, and once they do away with a few lingering old habits, the duo could prove an artistic pinnacle for both parties.