Album Review: Owen Pallett – Heartland

Owen Pallett may be one of the best new artists you’ve never heard of.  How can I say that?  Don’t I know that you’re on the cutting edge of indie music, and if he were really all that great then you’d know about him?  Well, first, Pallett’s resume includes indie giants Arcade Fire and Grizzly Bear (among others), he is credited with arranging the strings on the albums and contributing to remixes.  This should not be downplayed, as both Arcade Fire and Grizzly Bear have been lauded in large part for their sophisticated orchestral arrangements, but it seems that Pallett may have fell by the wayside as these bands entered the mainstream consciousness (Jay-Z didn’t exactly reference Owen Pallett when he praised Grizzly Bear).  Second, until recently, Pallett had been known as Final Fantasy.  He’s actually been around for years, but really, try telling your friends about a dude who plays violin and calls himself Final Fantasy and see how far you get.  As you can probably tell, it doesn’t sound especially appealing.  Final Fantasy did manage to generate a modest amount of fanfare, though (especially in Canada where he won the coveted Polaris Music Prize).

Well, with the release of his latest LP, Heartland, Pallett ditched the Final Fantasy moniker and decided to become more serious about this “little project” he’s been working on.  He is now simply Owen Pallett.  I’m excited.  I’m more excited because the album is very good, but there is something to be said for not having to condition every “The new Final Fantasy album is great” with “No, it’s not the soundtrack to the videogame…”

So how is Heartland?  The first thing you might notice is the structure of the songs.  You won’t really find the traditional verse-chorus-verse setup here.  There are vocal hooks but the songs are more schizophrenic with echoes and loops layered atop strings, horns, synth and drums.  The songs also portray certain moods and scenes.  The result is sort of like listening to a story – an opera sans fat ladies yelling at you.  Pallett is precise and efficient.  Each note has a purpose that lends itself to the overall message of the song.

Upon first listen, the obvious standout is “The Great Elsewhere,” an archetypal Pallett amalgamation of synth distortion, prominent strings and haunting vocals.  It’s catchy in a way that you wouldn’t expect.  It’s easy to dismiss the first six songs of the album, but the craftsmanship of “The Great Elsewhere” forces you to revisit them with a newfound appreciation for the story.

As for the story, from what I can gather, the album revolves around a farmer, Lewis, who seems to be more than a little displeased with his creator.  His creator, incidentally, is one Owen Pallett.  The labyrinthine lyrics don’t reveal too much more than this, and I don’t wish to do Pallett a disservice here, but the music is so good that it doesn’t really matter.  Whatever pieces of the story you pick up along the way only augment the musical strengths of the album.

“Tryst with Mephistopheles” and “Flare Gun” each rely on hopeful melodies that seem straightforward enough.  What’s striking here is the ease with which Pallett can instantly transform the dynamic of a song while retaining its essential ingredients.  In “Tryst with Mephistopheles,” he effortlessly works in a sort of staccato violin verse then returns to the basic melody with a robust horn reprise.

Ultimately the album is just another entry in the ever-expanding Owen Pallett catalog, sure to be overlooked by mainstream media outlets.  However, it really represents one of Pallett’s strongest offerings to date, and this is in spite of its flaws (like the hopelessly overwrought “Mount Alpentine”).  The fun of the album comes from repeated listening and the discovery of the subtle nuances in each track.  Whether or not you are particularly fond of flowery string arrangements or operatic melodies, this album is worth checking out as it is easily an early contender for one of the best efforts of 2010.

– Dave Ugelow

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