Pop Addict: Secret Cities’ Strange Hearts

Every Thursday, Pop Addict presents infectious tunes from contemporary musicians across indie rock, pop, folk, electronica, and more.

Secret Cities: Strange HeartsSecret Cities: Strange Hearts (Western Vinyl, 3/29/11)

Secret Cities: “Love Crime”

[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/WV87.LUV_.CR1ME.mp3|titles=Secret Cities: “Love Crime”]

The economic landscape is a desolate, lonely terrain these days. Throughout the country, there have been bailouts, bankruptcies, bank failures, and business closings. There is, however, always a bright side to things. Thanks (oddly enough) to the down economy, Fargo, North Dakota-based trio Secret Cities was able to craft a gem of a record with this year’s Strange Hearts.

With a seemingly firm resolution to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump, the band occupied the basement of a recently abandoned bank in Kansas City, Missouri, to record its follow-up record. Serving as the band’s makeshift studio, the deserted space (equipped with bulletproof glass and a gigantic vacant vault) helped the members — Charlie Gokey, Marie Parker, and Alex Abnos — to hone in on their creativity, focus their efforts, and play to their many musical strengths.

Coming off a solid debut with last year’s Pink Graffiti (which garnered a good amount of buzz across the blogosphere), Secret Cities’ second effort shows the band emerging a little older and a little wiser. Though Pink Graffiti is chock full of blissful, hook-riddled songs, the album comes off as a bit scattered, and for good reason: it took five years to write and record. So there should be no surprise that ideas formed and fizzled in the writing and recording process. The result is an interesting bit of psych folk that had many notable moments, but — despite the immense talent that the band possesses — it evaded a truly cohesive sound and experience for the listener.

This time-intensive approach to crafting a record wasn’t what Secret Cities had in mind for Strange Hearts; it decided to write and record the new record within three months. The result is a much more coherent, concentrated effort that still possesses the versatility and integrity of the band’s debut.

Strange Hearts mixes a number of different sounds without running the risk of sounding too random. The album features bits of Americana, indie folk, chamber pop, and psych minimalism, creating a haunting concoction of crackling, reverb-heavy, lo-fi gold. The haunting “Brief Encounter” mixes xylophone with horns and a death-march drum pattern; album opener “Always Friends” has undertones of tropicalia; and the up-tempo, fun-filled “Portland” is a nice contrast to hypnotic songs like “Ice Cream Scene.” Instilling layered percussion and haunted-house organs beneath melodic falsettos and harmonies, Secret Cities is one part Beach Boys, one part Panda Bear, one part Vampire Weekend, one part Camera Obscura — but recorded on tape and played in a boom box submerged into a vat of reverb and delay.

Unlike its predecessor, Strange Hearts’ assorted ideas don’t result in a lack of focus. Rather, the album pulls from what the band does best and puts all of those elements in a blender. The songs gel thanks to common musical threads featured on each track: Gokey’s wonderfully meandering falsetto, Parker’s angelic vocals and well-suited harmonies, Abnos’ intermittent yet incessant drumming, and the trio’s layers of acoustic guitar, keyboard, and sporadic percussion that adorn the songs in spontaneous explosions.

Overall, Secret Cities’ music balances pop sensibility with something just off-kilter enough so that it never comes off as predictable or contrived. Instead, it comes off as a band that has retooled its sound and is still surprising itself by what it’s finding. It’s a real treasure. If only the economy could help bring about more albums like this.

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