Sniff. My little kiddies are growing up!
The members of Melbourne, Australia’s Architecture in Helsinki are actually probably older than me or roughly the same age, but when I describe their music to people one of the first words I use is childlike. Not that it’s childish or immature; there’s just a sense of fun and innocence that makes everyone who hears them giddy like a kid who’s slaphappy at a sleepover party. Whatever your thoughts are on artists lending their songs to ads, they were the perfect choice for that Sprint commercial with the people making shapes with lights at some park at night, where it talks about what you dreamed of as a kid. I certainly didn’t dream of cell phones, but the AIH song does feel dreamy and childlike.
However, that song (“Souvenirs”) is from 2004’s Fingers Crossed, a light and airy affair with minimal drums and few loud moments. It was a sweet album but I didn’t like it a whole lot. The next year brought In Case We Die and huge progressions in sound. More live drums added bounce and rock to many songs, and the goofiness and tempos were jacked up on Pixy Stix. The vocals were still light and wispy, like a kid shyly singing into the microphone for the first time. I loved the hell out of that album, and it made me take another look at Fingers.
But AIH is changing. I expected it when I learned -- quite awhile before this album’s release -- that they had lost two members, shoring their numbers to a mere six. Tara Shackell and Isobel Knowles departed and I’m not sure why, but it left Kellie Sutherland and the only lady with five dudes. I doubt the girls were keeping AIH soft, but Places ushers in a much more intense, in-yo’-face group. Immediately you will notice a change with opener ”Red Turned White” with vocals busting out at you rather than shyly inviting you in, and Gary Numan-style synths buzz-sawing all over the damn place.
“Heart It Races,” with its reggaeton beat, was influenced by Cameron Bird’s new digs in a prominently Puerto Rican New York neighborhood. The song kicks ass, from its vocal bassline to its steel drum upbeats, and showcases the new dance party-friendly AIH. In “Hold Music” (my favorite) the vocals are gritty and intense with a lot of back-and-forth between Bird and Sutherland, with the later frequently shouting "Give it to me baby!," something of ‘sex-sells’ pop divas and not what I expected from AIH. But I embrace it because it fits the raucous dance beat and synth bass of the tune. And try to NOT sing along with the "hi-ya-ya" in the verses!
The album was tracked in 12 days, a record for a group who recorded their first two albums on their own, layering instruments and arranging studio shenanigans. The result of the speediness is a much tighter set and fewer tangents. Places was obviously recorded with a click track, and relies heavily on electronics like drum machines (or electronic kits) and synths. Perhaps they were influenced by all the remixes of their own work! In Case was loose, silly and organic, while Places is taught and exciting. They switch instruments so much it’s hard to tell, but I think those girls they lost played trumpet, sax and flute, because those instruments are now brought in by guest musicians, and only on a fraction of the tracks compared to the last album. Gone are the instrument-usage charts from their artwork, perhaps because it wasn’t as much to brag about this time around. If you loved the last two albums like me, Places may take a little getting used to. There’s no way you could hate it; they are still so frickin’ fun. If you liked “Do the Whirlwind”, magnify that groove and you’ll have an idea of what you’re in for.
However, the album stumbles slightly in the middle. The jerky staccato rhythms of “Feather in a Baseball Cap” make me think of Devo, but for AIH it doesn’t fit and brings the party thus far grinding to a halt. “Underwater” is an okay song, and sounds very much like its namesake: slow and soft, with bubbly synths and vocal effects. “Like It or Not” kicks the album back into gear, sounding the most like In Case We Die of this set. It features a horn/vocal/acoustic guitar intro in free time, and kicks in with Muppet-style group vocals. In “Nothing’s Wrong” we get a bit of the old-style whispered Bird vocals, but it’s just the brief outro.
Closer “Same Old Innocence” all of a sudden has me thinking of Berlin-era Bowie, or perhaps early `80s Talking Heads (both which bring up Eno by association) -- references that were never a huge stretch for the band but would not have been mentioned in regards to their last two albums. Needless to say this song is great and ends the album bumpin’.
Polyvinyl is a great home for the new album, and I think an Of Montreal / AIH tour is in order (howboutit?). Places Like This shows growth for an ensemble that easily could have used up all their crazy ideas by this point. While I still like In Case more and would give that probably a 10, this album may grow on me and surpass it. The stylistic change from childlike innocence to teenage-like hormone-fueled energy was a natural progression. You can’t keep kids from growing up, and when the parents go out of town it’s time for an Architecture house party! Woo!