February 18, 2016

TEST SPIN: Porches — Pool

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Porches frontman Aaron Maine seems to have spent the past couple of years enjoying, like so many of us, a great run of ’80s synthpop inspired indie records. His latest release Pool bears heavily the mark of their influence.

I began listening to Porches in 2014 after (unfortunately) missing their Fanclub Collective show at Watermargin. At the time, the band was promoting Slow Dance in The Cosmos — a lo-fi pop/indie rock ode to melancholy punctuated by moments of high energy and lyrical hilarity (see “Headsgiving,” “Fog Fog,” “Jesus Universe”). At the time, the band both exemplified and exceeded much of what I would have expected from a band touring the basement scene/small venue circuit. Slow Dance exhibited a DIY aesthetic rendered from imperfections, both in recording equipment and in the rough edges of the singer’s untrained voice and simple lyrics about commonplace scenarios and emotions. Porches did everything with a humor, a pathos and a commitment to interesting and unconventional lyricism that gave them an edge over almost any other band they played alongside.

Just moments into the opener “Underwater,” it is obvious that Pool is an entirely different sort of album than Slow Dance. Entirely absent are the imperfectionist lo-fi warmth, the ironic humor and almost any trace of rock or folk. In their place is high-gloss, electronic pop indicative of a newfound professionalism and perfectionism and a decisive new direction for the band.

All in all, this isn’t entirely surprising, given that Porches is a recent Domino Records signee. Furthermore, Pool was produced by the esteemed Chris Coady, whose résumé is an impressive list of indie-rock and pop records, the most pertinent of which is Future Islands’ Singles — and yeah, the lead single off Pool, “Be Apart,” would probably sound almost as good on Letterman as “Seasons (Waiting on You)” did.

The wry despondency that gave Slow Dance its distinctive character has been replaced on Pool with what seems an almost purposeful attempt to channel the downtempo bleakness of Caribou’s Our Love (see especially “Braid”). Elsewhere Maine tries his hand unsubtly, but enjoyably enough, at producing the New Wave R&B of his new Domino label mate Blood Orange (see “Mood,” “Security”). Our Love and Blood Orange’s Cupid Deluxe rank easily as two of my favorite albums of the past several years, but Pool just doesn’t have the spark of originality necessary to make it as good as its influences,

Though Pool is not a great pop album, the fact that it is a good and thoroughly enjoyable pop album should not be overlooked. My favorite parts include the atmospheric chorus of “Mood,” which finds Maine inquiring in a smooth falsetto “Are you in the mood?” (though in the mood for what he doesn’t make clear) and the well constructed, Ariel Pink-esque lo-fi pop of “Glow.”  Listeners cannot help but compare Maine’s unexpected ode to automobiles on “Car” — “Oh what a machine!” —  to Gary Numan’s classic synth-pop ode of a similar name. Porches comes to a strong close with “Security,” in which Maine tells us with arresting openness, set to a backdrop of bombastic ’80s synths, that all he wants is, well, “security.”

The clear standout for me, though, is the album’s title track. In “Pool,” the wavering quality that characterized Maine’s voice throughout Slow Dance finds its electronic parallel in bold auto-tune usage. “When it’s around about two, you suggest the pool,” the track opens up, “oh how I could just see it now your body as it comes down in slow-motion.” These last two words comprise the song’s refrain, and Maine sings them in a drawn out manner that, in conjunction with the autotune, suit the quality of his speech to his words themselves. Soon, the listener finds himself as immersed in the track as Maine’s muse is immersed in the titular pool. The track dissolves into an ecstatic Knife-esque blast of a synth riff in its final sixty seconds and demands repeated listens.

Unquestionably, Pool is a breakthrough for Maine. His new status as a Domino signee, the two bangers already released as singles — “Be Apart” and “Hour” — and even more importantly, Pitchfork’s coveted “Best New Music” tag will win Porches a league of new fans. Whereas the quirkiness of Slow Dance only appealed to a niche audience, the fresh trendiness of Pool makes Porches a band you can safely put on in front of anyone and look cool. But one can’t help but feel that Porches have sacrificed its own distinctive sound for trend chasing.

Matthew Pegan is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]