Let me sum up. That might seem a counterintuitive thing to do at the beginning of a review, but no, I think it’s a good place to start. Power Animal, if the title of this tape is any indication, is exorcising a ton of bad vibes, and is prepared to work his ass off to live a good life. That’s pretty freaking admirable.
The title track is clearly the emotional and philosophical center of the record, and it’s there you’ll find the most telling lyrical entries. I’ll get it going: “I will forgive those who have hurt me / And I will try to keep my wounds clean / And love those deserving / ’Til I can see clearly again.” I like this guy. I like what he’s saying. Power Animal is led by songwriter Keith Hampson, and it’s hard not to get behind him. Listen to what he has to say (through guest vocalist Paul North) on album opener “Better Water”: “I’m only water / Wish I could have been better water to you.”
And you know what? He gets away with it. You might question how he approaches us with this scrappy positivity and not come off like some cloying Chris Martin or Mumford & Sons clone or something. Or emo or something. It’s helpful that he’s got quite a few production tricks up his sleeve, and that he’s one heck of a songwriter. There might be some good karma involved here too, as Keith manages Human Kindness Overflowing, “a charitable organization and record label [whose] goal is to work with artists, musicians, labels, and generally good people to help raise money for various causes.”* So, an obvious willingness to make personal changes for the better as well as actively approach real-world problems with solutions tailor-made to his skill set? Is this dreamboat still single?
Got away from myself there.
*“For every $2 that you pay for this album, $1.50 will provide 3 meals for those in need through Philabundance while the other 50 cents will go toward funding future charitable projects with Human Kindness Overflowing.”
I mention the production and the songwriting, because what seems on the surface like a bedroom indie pop collaboration and Pro Tools party exceeds the potential limitations and brims with life and energy. Take, again, opener “Better Water,” an inverted choral performance that reveals over repeated listens amazing melodies in its backmasked tracking. The vocals are sublime, and the cut-and-paste approach on the whole hits sweet spots that a traditional band setup couldn’t possibly mimic as succinctly.
And yet traditional is the name of the game on “Exorcism,” as chiming guitar meets rolling drums, expanding to include other percussive elements and more shimmery strumming. The track builds over its five-and-a-half-minute runtime to a satisfying climax, brimming with hope and newness and affirmation. I blasted that song in my car today on the way home from work – it sounded awesome. And that’s unusual for any band to inspire me to do nowadays.
The tunes in between are all memorable as well for one reason or another, but most have one particular element that separates them. “Glandular Fever” features heavenly backing vocals, but the use of what sounds like a tape crapping out or an MP3 glitching as a percussive element pushes the track from pleasant to exciting. For “Bow and Arrow,” Hampson builds around a brass calypso sample, centralizing it as the song’s hook, but injecting enough space in order to make it that much more powerful in context. And “Mold Spores” finds Keith doing a David Byrne circa Look into the Eyeball (an album I love, by the way) impression, and pulling off the homage with style.
All this goodness, and I haven’t even mentioned that after six songs, the rest of the tape is backloaded with remixes! Normally, that’s a red flag – who gives half their album’s space to tracks they didn’t even work on? Ah, but Power Animal is a different … er, animal, and includes reworkings by friends who actually tease out nuances to the songs instead of simply slapping a beat on them. “Better Water (Lushlife Remix)” stands out as benefiting from this approach, not in the sense that the remix is better (far from it), but by being given new, potentially unimagined life as an R&B club banger, almost completely pulled inside out from its haunting original version. “Exorcism (Spirituals Remix)” is stretched out even further and given more room to breathe. Spirituals also utilizes a piece of the song’s opening line “I’m gonna live…” as a sample in the spaces between verses, an inspirational usage perfect for the reworking.
And my initial reaction to Golden Ages’ “Mold Spores” remix was that I had to include it in my next party mix, so perfectly were the 1980s synth lines and electronic drums crafted. …But then I shook myself back to reality – I don’t do party mixes. Nor do I party.
God I’m old.
But dude … dude. This has been one of my favorite things I’ve heard so far this year. Make it one of the favorite things you’ve heard this year as well. And it’s for a good cause! What are you, a heartless monster?
RIYL: Washed Out, Menomena, David Byrne, Caribou, Coma Cinema