The Kind Strangers
irst things first, the Kind Strangers don’t seem to make cool music.
Considering that Still Building is their heart-on-digital-sleeve debut and Geoff Bock essentially is TKS (the liner notes reveal that he alone wrote, performed, and recorded the album), I think it’s safe to assume the album’s affectionate, sensitive wisps of autumnal electronica and the earnest lover-come-back lyrics all stem from the mind of Mr. Bock.
Softer, less cerebral electronic music has been getting a short straw lately. Aside from a few Gibbard-loyalists, the Postal Service was justly slammed with a Strokes-level backlash and the major market for journal-entry laptop tinkering soon dried up. Over that same time span, LCD Soundsystem tore down dancehall walls with a juggernaut of Manchester synths and quaking, dark basslines. Prefuse 73 held down the other side of the spectrum, taking many of the same emotions TKS tries out here but fracturing them into micro-furious loops of passive-aggressive glich-hop.
TKS has a lot to subvert, and Still Building does its best with a healthy juxtaposition of clanging, industrial drum patterns and mellower, subway-tunnel-in-Budapest urban echoes.
“Get Lonely” is filled with looping dark chirps as Bock sings, “Let yourself kneel/take it from me/to get what you want/get lonely,” with an unexpected touch of heartfelt mourning. While lines like that certainly lose their credibility over a whole album, when it’s just Bock whispering affectionate little losses over a sweater-soft keyboard line, well, you can see why so many people bought the Postal Service album.
“Home By Now” is another insulated, domestic effort, comfortable sounding at first, though its endlessly pulsing bells and gossamer, distancing wails do just that: distance the listener from the song.
Still Building is a swell enough listen for a late fall afternoon of tidy introspection, but even getting through half of the album can be a chore. The rising tide of inoffensive noise effects never ceases. Bock’s lyrics don’t waver from the “I miss you, call me, insert vague sensory detail tied to memory” species. Yeah we get it; the big city can be alienating. Yup, people who forget who you sure do suck sometimes.
Hey! Didn’t I claim to kinda like this about four paragraphs ago?
The Kind Strangers have the same problem everyone else does in their genre: figuring how to use electronic machines to express emotions in a way you can’t (or didn’t) do with older, more conventional instruments. TKS skirts all these wonderfully layered ideas by sticking to alienation, isolation, and unrequited somethingorother in the plainest way possible. Still Building uses one trickle of instruments where a whole river bed of them would liven up the sound; the music is stripped down in a fragile way because these songs might not hold up under an infantry of snare drums and digitized flutes. It’s simply out of survival.
In pockets of Still Building I think I hear some kernels of an enjoyably disaffected sound: Bock’s voice humming blithely over some minor-key arrangements, fighting back a deep sequence of emotions. But come on, you can’t express what’s really going on in this, the deathliest of all seasons? I think this album isn’t cerebral because if we really knew what was going on behind those now-boilerplate digital chorals, we would think the Kind Strangers were not only uncool, but a little shallow, as well.
Reviewed by: Evan McGarvey
Reviewed on: 2005-10-14