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Balam Acab - Wander / Wonder

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Artist: Balam Acab

Album: Wander / Wonder

Label: Tri Angle

Review date: Aug. 29, 2011

Alec Koone doesn’t make rainbows from pierced clouds. The Ithaca, N.Y., bedroom producer best known as Balam Acab creates worlds where color is an afterthought, shooting stars piercing clear nights and monotone moons doing light’s heavy lifting. It’s dreamy because of the pitched vocals and resonant whispers. It’s deep enough because, unlike last year’s See Birds EP (Tri Angle Record’s first release, notably), Wander / Wonder was recorded entirely in stereo. A friend of Koone’s has said to him that “if the EP was like an old, ancient stream, this new music would be like a vast ocean.”

Mayan gods making beautiful hues from ominous hovering, nocturnal radiance, “depth,” dreams and water allegories. It all sounds like a teenage dream, doesn’t it? And in some ways, Koone is the ideal complement to Katy Perry: Both traffic in idealizing what it means to be old enough to drive and both have a talent for capturing cliché at its most appealing. Katy Perry sings explicitly about tonight, or last Friday night, or about being a firework, or other aspects of the teenage experience preteens think they’re gearing up for; Koone’s vocal samples say nothing, but on a song like “Oh, Why,” they say it with a heave of great emotion that reaches everyone beyond the cool clique. The distinct feeling of insecurity – of working out what sincere means – is everywhere.

This wrestling with sincerity is what’s most evocative about the debut Balam Acab full-length. Naïve and wide-eyed, Wander / Wonder tries so damned hard to feel real, to make big dreams and grandiose plans feel distantly (but not quite) attainable. That imminent reachability isn’t noticeable in the opening build of “Welcome,” which has a low-pitched vocal, vinyl hiss and a bubbling beat. “Apart” is where you start to feel it. Koone’s primary influences – J Dilla and Burial have been referenced, but let’s say Animal Collective and anything Jimmy Tamborello was up to a decade ago – are easy to hear in a vocal like “Await” or in the clap of “Expect.”

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this album. It sounds well thought out and flows well, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and pushes the after-hours pleasure buttons like no other group mislabeled witch-house. So what is it that Wander / Wonder lacks? Is it that these songs seem “easier” than the work of guys like Mount Kimbie or James Blake? Koone has mentioned how he thinks this set of songs has a pop influence, and in relation to his contemporaries, that’s true — he’s as conventional and welcoming as you can get this side of Merriweather Post Pavilion. Feel the universality.

Balam Acab may be on the Tri Angle roster, but he is not of it. He aspires for more and does it with the sonic self-confidence of someone who thinks he can get there on the backs of listeners as emotionally vulnerable as he appears to be. Like the pointlessly reformed Braid or Merriweather Post Pavilion or Katy Perry, there’s a good chance Wander / Wonder can deeply affect you at some point in your life. Given human life expectancy, however, there’s also a good chance now isn’t it.

By Patrick Masterson

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