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The Russian Futurists - Our Thickness

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Artist: The Russian Futurists

Album: Our Thickness

Label: Upper Class

Review date: Apr. 24, 2005

In theory, the music that Torontonian Matthew Adam Hart makes as The Russian Futurists should be pretty standard-issue indie stuff: cleverly worded analyses of bad love set to intricate major-key classicist pop melodies with overstuffed pocket-synth/pocket symphony production. It seems like a tired idea by now; one has a sense that there are folks making records like this all the time in bedrooms all over the place. But there's a uniqueness to the stuff Hart comes up with that eludes the above description even though that's pretty accurate for a one-sentence summation of his style.

Perhaps it's a quantitative difference rather than a qualitative one: for each of the qualities he shares with like-minded artists (the Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt, for one), Hart just embodies it that much more. He clearly puts a tremendous amount of effort and craftsmanship into his records, on almost every level. The wordplay

that pervades his fine new full-length, Our Thickness starts with the perfectly-pitched half-lisped title, whose meanings proliferate as Hart's lyrics unfold. As the love-tossed plights of these songs' narrators repeatedly suggest, our sickness is thickness, relationship-wise. We've forgotten how to truly listen when our lovers are speaking, and that's why our affairs are doomed. We're desensitized and insensitive. "It's concealing the hurting using heavy wording in black and white like your dreams / It's sentiments and syllables and still it pulls and rips you apart at the seams."

Which brings me to the point that "density" is a marvelous homonym, and these are some dense little ditties. The melodies are so finely wrought that they could hardly have been an afterthought to the words, but labyrinthine enough that it's hard to imagine trying to fit lyrics to them, particularly lyrics as convoluted yet crystalline as these. The puns ("it's just some paint on a canvas but it's still life") and especially the internal rhymes ("instability's killin' me") fly fast and freely, distracting us from the crushing tales of heartbreak they embellish. It's an effect that enhances the time-honored pop tradition of emotional misdirection โ€“ setting bleak words to upbeat melodies โ€“ a kind of affective dissonance that Hart stretches to both extremes, while simultaneously engaging in an outpouring of assonance both harmonic and literary.

All of which is nothing particularly new for fans of the 'group.' In its approach to songwriting, Our Thickness is essentially a rehash (albeit a welcome one) of 2003's Let's Get Ready to Crumble with somewhat less topical diversity. Where this album stands out most from its predecessor is in the production. It bears many of the same sonic signatures (clunky beat-box loops; keyboards doubling the vocal melodies) and the instrumentation is still unmistakably synthesized. But the fidelity level is several notches higher โ€“ enough to make the dense orchestration noticably cleaner and beef up some of the thinness that plagued past releases.

The album offers an impressive amount of experimentation within the basic template of orchestral synth-pop. Opener "Paul Simon" bursts out of the gate with a peppy faux-latin groove and infectious horn blasts. (They wouldn't sound too out of place on Graceland, which is the closest I can come to understanding the song's title.) "Still Life" features a chunky cha-cha sample that sounds like it might have been lifted รก la Daedelus from a scratchy '30s-era lounge record, while the cinematic "2 Dots on a Map" is built on a lush, symphonic loop that ends the record on a swirly and atypically anthemic note. Best of all might be "Why You Gotta Do that Thang?" which would absolutely slay if reconfigured as thugged-out hip-hop track, with its sleighbell-laden boom-boom-bap and playfully repetitive chorus hook. Just clear out a couple of those extraneous chirpy synths and get the Clipse to rock a couple verses.

Seriously, there's a tremendous amount of talent in evidence on this album, to the point that it's almost overwhelming despite its thematic and stylistic cohesion. Hart seems to want to take his well-established template in multiple directions at once, and indeed it will be interesting to see which if any become more of a focus in

whatever he does next (his forthcoming tour with countrymen Caribou and the Junior Boys suggests intriguing collaborative possibilities). On the other hand, the complexity of his songs suggest they'd be well served in a more stripped-down, organic setting, where the lyrics and melodies could be better appreciated on their own terms. Or maybe he'll just maintain his thickness and keep us in delightfully dense bedroom synth-pop. As Our Thickness makes transparent, there's plenty of life in the genre yet.

By K. Ross Hoffman

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