Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Land of Talk: Cloak and Cipher

Land of Talk
Cloak and Cipher
Rating: 2.0/5.0
Label: Saddle Creek

Just how many catchy, brightly shimmering, guitar-fueled pop choruses can one listener stand? Such is the question raised by Land of Talk's latest album, the so-formulaic-it-hurts Cloak and Cipher. Worse, the album's tendency to drum up these punchy choruses like clockwork and with all the dedication of someone feeding an addiction is not its only flaw, as this repetition also extends to Elizabeth Powell's always enunciated, occasionally barely-above-a-breathy-whisper vocals as well as the mid-tempo pace of most tracks. As such the album is a regression for Land of Talk after a decent EP and somewhat less decent full-length, frequently showing that a good idea done to death is, well, overkill.

The album opens solidly enough with the title track, establishing a gauzy, melody-focused pattern for most of what follows. Even follow-up track "Goaltime Exposure," which stretches past the five-minute mark and essentially revisits the same verse-chorus-verse-chorus-chorus-more-friggin' chorus approach, is palatable and sometimes contains solid lyrics. But by third song "Quarry Hymns," the jig is up: though its pace slackens from its predecessors, at nearly six minutes it's overlong and Powell's vocals sound like they were misplaced in the mid-'90s female folksinger revival and only recently unearthed by a Lilith Fair fanatic. "Hamburg, Noon" and "Blangee Blee" repeat the same structure as these earlier songs, offering up sing-along lyrics and hummable melodies but very little of anything consequential. The result is an album that is tedious and, coupled with its fairly lengthy running time, one that is likely to test a listener's patience like few albums can.

It's not that that these songs are bad; far from it. Indeed, if I stumbled across one on iPod Shuffle or satellite radio I probably would give it a listen, even if I could live with never hearing it again. True, there are some moments on Cloak and Cipher that at least temporarily stall its overwhelming predictability, as on the slowed-down tempo of "Better and Closer" and "Playita," the distorted vocals and electronics of "The Hate I Won't Commit" and the hard rock guitars of "Swift Coin." Still, a few tricks and embellishments here and there aren't enough to make most of the songs sound anything but excessively similar; it's simply too much of an average thing.

It doesn't help things that Powell tends to sound like almost every sweet-throated female singer who's released an album since 1972. Cloak and Cipher is recommended to be absorbed in small amounts, and perhaps there's a good EP buried in here. But taken as an album it's a difficult listen, not because it's particularly avant garde - far, far from it -but instead because it prefers to club listeners upside the head with choruses laid out like a roadmap. There's nothing wrong with a great chorus, of course, but time shouldn't seem to crawl when listening to a record.

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