as Sting been accounted for? Has anyone seen him lately? Teaching a judo class at your neighborhood dojo perhaps? Come on now. Is the world’s self-appointed Tantric sexpert answering anyone’s calls? ‘Cause to listen to Halloween, Alaska’s self-titled debut album (recorded in St. Paul, naturally), I would have sworn he was slapping the mosquitoes in Minnesota last summer; and by God, that perhaps the man had discovered down-tempo electronics.
“You’re it” opens Halloween, Alaska with a stillborn heart. Slowly bubbling up from the silence like the insistent noise of summer’s cicadas, a slow beat, dead and quiet, begins to stammer at the edges. Lead singer James Diers sings like a father putting his children to bed. His slow, emotive drawl is a dead-ringer for Sting’s, or maybe it’s more the deadbeat amalgamation of every aged songwriter whose voice is no longer necessary. Paul Simon. Van Morrison. Paul McCartney. Raffi.
The next song, “All the Arms Around You”, wraps Diers’s deadpan vocals with the ideal accoutrement: ringing chimes! If the too-sedate voice wasn’t enough to make you pink and downy, then certainly the chimes! I imagine if computers could be programmed to sing in lullaby tones and harmless baby’s-breath cooing so even-toned and level they might ensconce the world in velvet, the programmer would eventually knock at Mr. Diers door. They’d have an offer he couldn’t refuse; they’d listen while he explained that wasn’t his intention, that this was just down-tempo, and he’d plug in his amp and cough up a barnstormer. Surely, he would be insulted by their offer. He’d tell them so, and then he’d accept it. He’d talk it over with his wife; she’d hesitate and leave him her silence as response, and then he’d accept. Thinking of his children and a world entangled in the foul throes of sleeplessness, he’d accept.
I hear what you’re saying. “But you’re so angry. This couldn’t just be his even-edged voice, or the way it complements Halloween, Alaska’s soft electronic backdrops a little too perfectly.” And, no, I’d admit, it’s far more than that. It’s the moments on this album that come so close to moving far beyond tired electro-pop with oh-so-many sweet nothings sticking in your ears like sugar-water. Following the aforementioned “All the Arms Around You,” the cloudy tones and chugging, stolid beat of “Des Moines” punch holes through its sky-blue synths, giving you the winter without the sting; the cold without the hurt. The track isn’t as stiff as much of their material; it’s loose and sweaty, like wearing too many woolen layers despite the craven cold. The vocals overcome their plaintive, tired-eyed yearning and finally manage to match wits with these songs. The distinction is subtle, but the track invites you in by the fire; it doesn’t just offer you a match.
And, we can’t stop there. The album’s best track is a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Jersey lament, “State Trooper.” I would never have imagined the All-American hero worked so well with chilly electronic accompaniment. Here’s to a future tribute album. As alarm tones ring out across a voided expanse, a splotchy, wet beat begins to heat the song up. Here, Tiers’s vocals are edged with the growing menace and panic of the searcher. The hesitation of the music, as it grows in spurts like a violent storm, covering the track in an instant unforeseen and unprepared for, brings out the tension in Tiers’s voice. The jagged curl of the track’s uncertain end is enthralling.
With those two songs left to judge them by, you’re right; I’m angry. I’m more troubled by talented bands failing to understand their shortcomings than average bands playing to their strengths. Halloween, Alaska forsake their own instincts at times. Any band capable of turning a Springsteen highway dirge into a grand electronic quest is worth watching. Unfortunately, their debut is the kind of record you play as you brush your teeth and hope for pleasant, merciful dreams that won’t sweat through your night. And that’s fine. If that’s what you need to gain rest, I can’t find fault with that. Me, I’d try melatonin or Tylenol PM long before this record. But that’s because frustration makes me restless, and Sting just makes me pissy.