March 21, 2011

Review: Starfucker :: Reptilians

Pre-ordering: the moment when fandom and excitement take over frugality and rational lines of thought. Should I really be paying $20 for an album I've never actually heard? No one likes throwing away their weekend beer money on a nice single and an accompanying assortment of crap filler. I've made that mistake before, and perhaps that's why I'm so wholly enamored with Starfucker's Polyvinyl debut, Reptilians. Because the sexy tease of a shiny single, pretty artwork, and clear vinyl are surpassed by the album's tapestry of 11 interconnected songs: simultaneously life-affirming and existentially contemplative synth-pop that races forward where it should drag and fist-pumps where it should be reaching for the box of tissues.

On the album's uptempo single, "Julius," songwriter-in-chief Joshua Hodges sings with a soft hush about waiting alone for death to come and imagines what that last moment might feel like: "Picture your body / Hearing your voice / Fall into your eyes." If Hodges were singing alone with an acoustic guitar, I might ask for a bottle of whiskey and a shotgun. But "Julius," like much of Reptilians, is painted with psychedelic and brightly-colored brushstrokes of twinkling keyboards, pulsating synthesizers, and relentlessly uptempo percussion. Discussing death within the confines of a pop song is a rare and brave feat that endows the band with a certain degree of credibility, as this isn't simply bubblegum to be chewed up and spit out. Rather, this is a philosophical wrestling match that deals with a universally understood fact that no one likes to discuss: yes, we're all going to die. Hodges and company, as they were on their debut, are again aided thematically with interspersed clips of Eastern philosopher Alan Watts lecturing. One particularly notable concept is inserted into the outro of "Mystery Cloud," where Watts analogizes that death is "like manure. Just as manure fertilizes the plants and so on, so the contemplation of death and acceptance of death is very highly generative of creative life. You'll get wonderful things out of that."

Reptilians seems to have literally manifested that idea with many of the album's shiniest pop moments stemming from sleepless nights pondering that black abyss. Yet, never once is the mood of the album downtrodden or defeated: at every turn, this is a celebration of life. The instrumentation is often so overwhelmingly lyrical and entrancing that the absence of a singer on one of the album's strongest tracks, "Quality Time," almost goes by without notice. As the soaring synths pierce through the song's densely clouded atmosphere of bass and fuzz, it's clear words would only obscure the song's jubilant "go out and seize-life-by-the-balls" message.

Discussion of Starfucker's music is unfortunately often framed by the band's playful name or its musical synth- and dance-pop centered neighbors, like Passion Pit and MGMT. That framing tends to overshadow the unique voice Starfucker has cultivated over two consistently dynamic full-lengths and an EP. That voice is best understood as an impressive balancing act: one that is able to tackle serious subjects without any pretensions, simply because the band never takes itself or its music overly seriously. It's heartening when people with smarts make accessible pop music, as there are few art forms more instantaneously and physically intoxicating. And it's even more heartening when they do it and then call themselves Starfucker. In 2011, Reptilians is a rare moment for a band, perhaps only matched by Kurt Vile's Smoke Ring For My Halo: an album that executes and fulfills every promise of previously implied potential.

Starfucker - "Bury Us Alive"
Starfucker - "Quality Time (Demo)"
Starfucker - "Julius (Painted Palms Remix)"


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