You Are Here
orn from the scattered ashes of indie-rock mainstay Versus, Plus/Minus developed as the electro-pop offshoot of their lead singer James Balayut. Self-producing his first album and enlisting the aid of various musicians, Plus/Minus’ debut was an arresting concoction of pulsating electronic beats and daydreamy acoustic guitars. Though it sometimes felt like the creative unloading of a man now freed of his band, it proved to be a lynchpin entry in a series of stunning electro-pop albums from the past several years, including those by the Notwist and Postal Service.
Yet by album’s end, Balayut’s bedscape tracks failed to wander far enough from the path laid by the first few songs. Its flatlined sense of pacing slowed the pulse a bit too much, leaving you wishing for a single spike or two to shake your weary ass.
On his follow-up, You Are Here, Balayut drops a set of songs that will leave all of us drooling from exhaustion. They heave and drop from one to the next, singed with a burning need to let it bleed from whichever pore it comes. A sense of delayed urgency blends the tracks like a symphony; you await the oncoming burst as the throb grows fat and plump and the eventual need to open up and splatter the room keeps you pinned to each sound. Electronics are no longer at the wheel for the most part; Balayut enlisted a drummer, Chris Deaner, and a former band-mate, Patrick Ramos, to flesh out his escapist sounds. With their aid, the drift-and-return atmospherics leave traces of an unseen hand grasping at nothing in the dark.
“Cutting Out” exemplifies the beauty of the album’s ebb and flow. The dancing chimes and ceremonial drums charge into its Ritalin-deprived guitars, and just as they threaten the tattered threads of your senses, the song cuts back into a psychedelic waltz and Balayut’s chopped up vocals settle along the song’s fading horizon.
As the electronic beats begin on “No One Sees You Like I Do,” Balayut retreats inside himself with an ominous night-vision soundtrack. Piping electronic bells set the song’s forlorn landscape, and the stomping guitars cut into the backdrop’s mechanized darkness, It’s the ideal accompaniment for this unsettling tale of predawn voyeurism.
Unfortunately, after several listens, the album begins to crack in a few places. “Trapped Under Ice Floes (Redux)” drags its feet like a spoiled child. Its ringing, late-nineties guitars and its bleeding-heart chorus waft far too close to bad emo to be saved. It halts the album’s progressive sense of maturation and perhaps keeps it from year-end-favorite status. “Megalomaniac” suffers from the same symptoms, but it manages to mask them at the start. Picking though entrancing guitars that unhinge like those of Modest Mouse, it eventually crescendos into an empty, desperate chorus that yelps more than it sings.
With that said, I’ve been listening to a lot of Christmas music recently, and the fact that much of it succumbs to this same problem with choruses reminds me that the holidays have just passed and left us fresh with Yuletide gifts. A cheap year-end metaphor may help to sum up my feelings on this one. For every Christmas jewel you receive, a hazy end-of-the-family-tree third cousin gives you a faulty electronic tire-pressure gauge that insists your Michelins are 85 PSI (that’s far too specific, isn’t it?). Anyway, as long as the former outweighs the latter, our consumerist/recipient holiday glee is stoked anew, and we yearn for next year. With You Are Here, Plus/Minus has left us a modest boon, one which manages to overwhelm its own missteps in the face of the occasion as a whole. We should all be anxious for the next time around.