Passion Pit - Manners Review

You would probably have to be truly sour and astringent to completely write off Passion Pit, but cheer probably has its limit. Considering that the group is the byproduct of a Boston fellow with his heart-a-breaking, such endless ebullience is rather puzzling. For the four people out there not in the know, Michael Angelakos cranked out six songs to try and win back his fed up girlfriend. The ploy didn’t work, but the songs were good enough that he was encouraged to post them on his MySpace page. Thus was born the Chunk of Change EP, which led to the recruiting of four others to fill out a full band. And now we have Manners, the debut full-length from Angelakos’ Passion Pit. But where most music inspired by desperation and forlornness tends to be, well, desperate and forlorn, Passion Pit specializes in energy and fizz, electropop with hooks aplenty, falsetto lead vocals and unabashed romanticism. Already you should know if you’re going to like it.

On an individual basis, Passion Pit deserves the buzz label. At least half of these songs have 7” potential, and seem perfectly carved and spliced for your next get-together, whether its for an intimate half dozen or one with speakers facing out of windows to get half the block bouncing. Dance mixes, here they come. Spirited, sprightly and shamelessly chirpy, you’re guaranteed to either love some or hate most. I’ll let your outlook determine that. As for me, there’s a lot to be said for an EP’s inherent brevity.

At eleven songs lasting some forty-five minutes, there’s plenty of swooning goodwill to swallow here. Every song seems to be about love, and unlike that time when Stephen Merritt gave us sixty-nine variations of it, the outlook here is almost unbearably positive—even the lovesick ones sound adorable. Maybe I’m viewing the entire thing like everyone else did of Poppy Cross, but the optimism can be reinforcing at times and elsewhere it just becomes gaudy. Because Angelakos specializes in electronic pop, we know that synths/keyboards are going to be the foundation and there’s simply no room for enough songs that are tuned down or spacious enough to let the soda pop settle. The label of relentless shouldn’t be aimed at material as buoyant and blithe as this and yet the term still applies.

None of this would matter if the tunes were there, and despite the mixed bag results, there are several worthy of adulation. Some work against better instincts—backup vocals from children ought to be one of the most offensive crimes a pop song can commit, but these guys get away with it not once but twice. Those two highlights are “Little Secrets” and “The Reeling”; the former is fast food pop at its most embarrassingly delicious and the latter sticks to your brain for days (trust me). They’re not great compositions, but as empty-headed but joyous dance tunes, they’re both choice cuts. “Folds in Your Hands” is the rare song on the album that truly grows (i.e., deemed borderline filler the first go-round but emerged as a suitably catchy number after a few more laps) and “Seaweed Song” makes up for several miffed opportunities late in the game by closing the disc out on a high note—treacle elevated to hummable audio cotton candy.

So much effervescent enthusiasm goes a long way, so when they take the time to slow things down and build on their synth riffs before breaking out the Technicolor sunbursts, the efforts are immediately noticeable. “Moth’s Wings” could be rewritten as an arena power ballad by the U2s and Coldplays of the world, but serves as a decent palette cleanser after “Secrets.” Then there’s “Swimming in the Flood,” the longest song by a hair, and the one that wanders from their candy-coated trail the furthest. “My eyes have once again been proven wrong, your clouds, your blanket and my pity song…then I lie naked in a rampage, in the flesh, face to face,” could even pass itself off as Cure-lite. It’s one of the least dance-friendly tracks, though it still has a monster chiming hook and it lingers as much as “Reeling.”

Fans may prefer writing off any criticisms as some form of “too-much-of-a-good-thing” belly-aching, but the truth is, that there are three or four songs on here that just aren’t any good. “Make Light” wants a different singer—some may be turned off completely by the high notes, but this was the only case where it truly rankled me, which is strange since it’s the first song. “Let Your Love Grow Tall” brings back the kiddies, but they’re integrated almost as a second thought, failing at the attempt to bring a little extra oomph to a mostly lifeless cut. The trilling warble backing up the overly woozy “Sleepyhead” would sound like Tiny Tim if it weren’t so sugary (and, therefore, leans towards certain cute little singing rodents)—it’s the sort of thing that Hot Chip would rewrite into something worth hearing. This one is particularly disappointing since it also featured on their EP in a less-neutered but still limp version; why repeat the same mistake?

With cynicism and angst coming by the barrelful in music, this sort of thing should be cherished more than I’m capable, but it’s hard to ardently support an album where even a few of the good ones work in a guilty way. No, that’s not fair—guilt should never accompany such exuberance—but it still would have been nice for them to come back to Earth once in a while to say something I actually cared about. “Let your love grow tall/Tall as the grass in the meadow/Or the dunes on the shore,” just ain’t cutting it. Cherishing them solely for the perceptible bliss these guys had simply making the record can only carry you so far despite several infectious memories. Describing this stuff as over-the-top goes without saying, and dangerously encircling self-parody can’t be the wisest of decisions even for a young band, but what else can they give us? We’ll see. I’m still bobbing my head to “The Reeling,” though.

"Manners" is on sale May 26, 2009 from Columbia.

Matt Medlock


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