When Halloween, Alaska’s previous album, their 2003 self-titled effort, arrived in my mailbox, wrapped up in press meterials that drew up comparisons to the likes of The Blue Nile and David Sylvian, I was naturally skeptical. After all, one doesn’t take comparisons to such luminaries lightly.
But I was quite surprised and delighted to discover that the album did, in fact, live up to such lofty comparisons, due to the band’s soft, haunting atmospherics and James Diers’ soft crooning voice. And apparently, I wasn’t the only one so struck. The band quickly gained all sorts of acclaim, one of their songs even making an appearance in an episode of über hip television drama The O.C..
However, the band’s future seemed a little dubious, due to Dier’s departure from the band’s native Minneapolis for sunny Los Angeles. However, the group soldiered on, collaborating despite geographical barriers, and the result is Too Tall to Hide.
Whereas the band’s debut chose to embrace the listener slowly but surely, Too Tall to Hide starts off on a much more uptempo note with “A New Stain“ ‘s club-inspired drum machines and arpeggiated synths building up to a frantic pace. And Diers’ voice, as strong as it was before, takes on a more insistent tone. “Drowned” continues on this tack, its driving rhythms courtesy of Matt Friesen (bass) and David King (drums) feeling quite a bit different than the enveloping, slowburn approach of the previous album.
That’s not to say that the atmospherics — the layers of twilit synthesizers, the organic drum programming, the shimmering guitars, Diers’ effortlessly emotional voice — that made Halloween, Alaska’s debut so beguiling are gone. They’re still there, but in a more condensed and streamlined form due to the newfound focus on rhythm and beats. However, when the band chooses to move along at a more glacial pace, such as on “The Light Bulb Does,” it’s quite intoxicating.
The song creeps alongside Friesen’s bassline while blurry synth textures float along, only hinting at ghosts of melodies and allowing plenty of room for orchestral flourishes. And the album’s closer, the sparse ballad “Glide,” begins as a duet between Diers’ voice at its most plaintive and a soft, thematic piano. But it ends on a more ominous note as rumbling guitar drones, glitches, and booming percussion drift across the song’s path like distant stormclouds.
Halloween, Alaska’s more streamlined sound does have the advantage of making their music more accessible and immediate. But unfortunately, it also sometimes allows the band to veer a little closer towards sappy, adult contemporary territory, especially on a track like “Forever” with its gospel-lite backing vocals. Perhaps Diers’ tenure out on the west coast means a little more sunshine has entered the band’s sound, but I personally find the moodier, gloomier sounds of the band’s debut to be more intriguing. Perhaps nowhere is this newer, “upbeat” approach more evident than in the band’s choice of covers.
While they chose to cover Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper” on the self-titled disc (and in a brilliantly harrowing fashion, I might add), their cover of LL Cool J’s “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” is a little more, um, suspect. True, I’ll admit there’s something intriguing about Diers singing “I’m the man with the box that can rock the crowd” in that effortless croon of his, but one can’t quite escape the kitsch factor as the band does its best to meld mid-80s hip-hop with their atmospheric tenor. It’s nowhere near as bad as it sounds on paper, but at the same time, it does come out a little on the goofy side (especially with that super-sexy backup whisper).
That being said, Too Tall To Hide is still worth picking up if you’re looking for pop that’s a little more mature and thoughtful than, say, the latest offering from Rob Thomas and his ilk. There’s a lovely sensitivity at work in Halloween, Alaska’s songs, a gentle and thoughtfully ambient sound that always seems to remain a welcome and warming listen.
Even when they’re covering LL Cool J.