Boy In Static: Newborn
Alien Transistor

The burgeoning 'laptop pop' movement encompasses established artists like Lali Puna, Styrofoam, and The Notwist as well as newer acts The Postal Service, Ms. John Soda, The Go Find, and Khonnor (Connor Kirby-Long), the latter especially notable given the precocious age—17—at which he released his debut. Add 23-year-old Alexander Chen (aka Boy in Static) to the wunderkind list, as his Newborn was recorded entirely during 2003-04 in his Boston apartment; with the exception of one song (“Epilogue”) where friends assisted on drums and bass, all instruments were performed by Chen. It's hard to resist drawing parallels between Kirby-Long and Chen: their debuts are on relatively new labels (Type Records and Alien Transistor, respectively) and both produce heartfelt, melancholy pop filtered through glitchy production treatments. Furthermore, while John Twells (Xela) and Stef Lewandowski manage Type, Alien Transistor is operated by The Notwist's Markus and Micha Acher.

Newborn is bookended by two of its best songs. “Bellyfull” proves an elegant and stately opener with acoustic guitars, clicking beats, harmonium tones, and cellos generating a dense cushiony cloud for Chen's hushed vocals, while “Slept Fine” impresses as an arresting wistful coda. The title track is also strong, with a pronounced shoegaze quality in its thrumming layers of guitars, electronics, and strings. Influences emerge over the course of the album, including New Order (“Newborn” and “Broke,” with its Peter Hook bass lines) and Smashing Pumpkins (in its ballad-styled “1979” Mellon Collie mode, in spite of the Corgan-like snarl to the vocal in “Epilogue”); ironically, the Notwist influence is most evident in “Truly Yours,” specifically in the vocal melody, yet the song is one of the least melodically distinguished on the album, plus the mix is slightly too muddy with the strings and guitars blurrily melding together. While the album generally exudes an affecting melancholy, Newborn has its more aggressive side, evidenced by the dense wall of sound in “Warm Blooded,” the manic drum attack in “Epilogue,” and the aggressive head-nodder “Kissed Under The Sun.” Admittedly, there's a slight drop-off in songwriting quality in the later tracks, though the lovely closer “Slept Fine” exits the album on a high note.

Ultimately, key differences between the respective releases of Kirby-Long and Chen emerge. Khonnor's songwriting possesses a bit more melodic sparkle but Chen's more judicious production style offsets that relative lack by letting his songs breathe without encumbering with excessive electronic treatments and thereby undermining them. It's a fine line to tread, too, because Chen's songs often hew to a gauzy shoegaze style yet he never tips the balance so far that the songs vanish inside a too-hazy mix. In some respects, then, while they're both credible releases, Chen's Newborn achieves what Khonnor's Handwriting promises yet falls somewhat short of realizing.

November 2004