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Planningtorock - W

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Artist: Planningtorock

Album: W

Label: DFA

Review date: Jun. 22, 2011

In retrospect, Tomorrow, in a Year was a bit of a chore. On paper, the collaboration between The Knife, Planningtorock and Mt. Sims seemed like a win for a certain cross-section of warped-synth-pop fans and people who overestimate their tolerance for classical music. In reality, it was often less than convincing, if admirably executed and intellectually compelling. Brushing off the indie fame that pursued Silent Shout, The Knife and its lesser-known friends parted with their recognizable quirks, effectively disappearing into an alien form of narrative music. W, the second album from Planningtorock, is an altogether different listening experience than the opera, yet it’s hard to imagine it would sound as accomplished without that experience.

Janine Rostron, a.k.a. Planningtorock, is a classically trained violinist from the U.K. who lives in Berlin. Her own music grew in tandem with her video art and association with Chicks on Speed, but her classical training shines through, as well. She tends to play all the instruments in her songs, the guts of which are made of pizzicato violin, the occasional bow swoop for color, and nasty MIDI sax for dramatic effect. What you hear are rich, organic timbres meticulously sequenced into taut, moody pop. (Synths are important, too, but Rostron often opts for functional sounds that drip and glow but never call attention to their synthyness.) In the five years since her debut, Have It All, Rostron has fleshed out the transparent, conceptually interesting almost-pop of songs like “Changes” into a deceptively familiar and ghoulishly effective songwriting style.

There’s a larger-than-average gulf between Janine and Planningtorock, which she indicates visually by costumes that make her look like Elizabethan royalty or an update on Ron Perlman in Beauty and the Beast. Sonically, there’s the way she pitches her voice down à la Karin Dreijer Andersson, but what sets her apart is the way she commits to the drama of her songs. The approach is similar to that of video art: making media we normally devour go down less smoothly. Rostron understands the appeal of using familiar forms like pop songs and videos to disguise a critique of the same, but she’s also comfortable leaving the fourth wall up, presenting it as just entertainment. This makes it feel like she’s on the listener’s side, not in a pedantic role above crass enjoyment. Much could be written about the macho hysteria of “I’m Yr Man,” for example, but the point is that it works as escapism. If it makes you think about how pop works, that’s a nice bonus. But you won’t miss the point if you just wolf it down.

W is familiar on a couple of levels. First, there’s the way your brain recognizes it as pop music, even as Rostron adopts a monster voice, even as the songs grow out of the uncanny valley where classical instrumentation and electronic techniques meet. There are also specific echoes: the clattering percussion that introduces “Jam” recalls Tomorrow, in a Year single, “Colouring of Pigeons.” Then there’s the way the implacable pulse of “Doorway” resembles another opening track — “If I Had a Heart,” from Karin A.’s album as Fever Ray. Safe to say W doesn’t go out of its way to establish its uniqueness. Instead, it relies on the listener’s patience to cohere. The huge shifts in tone, as between the haunted “Going Wrong” to the lightheaded love-song perfection of “The Breaks,” seem jarring at first, but are magically accounted for as you spend more time in Rostron’s world. Even “Living It Out,” which initially struck me as a kind of obligatory disco track for DFA cred, has an improbable appeal in the context of W.

This is what Lady Gaga must think she sounds like at her riskiest. The truth of W doesn’t look as good on paper, but give it time. It’s more convincing than it has any right to be.

By Brandon Bussolini

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