Styrofoam: I'm What's There To Show That Something's Missing
Morr Music

In the spirit of Lali Puna's Scary World Theory and Ms. John Soda's No P. or D., Morr Music's love affair with vocal-based pop electronica continues with I'm What's There To Show That Something's Missing, Arne van Petegem's third release for the label. Perhaps sharing the stage with The Notwist, Opiate, and Lali Puna during 2002 had something to do with his move into similar territory; apparently, his touring mates pushed him to sing live rather than replay and process his recorded vocals through his laptop as he had done originally. This newfound confidence has resulted in his vocals being placed at the forefront of the mix instead of burying or altering them using DSP treatments. Regardless, his version of Slowdive's “Altogether” and his own “Fade Out Your Eyes” from the recent compilation Blue Skied an' Clear hinted at what this newest offering might sound like. It represents a full-scale immersion into the conventions of vocal-based pop songwriting, with acoustic guitars texturally enhanced by sparkling electronic touches.

A melancholy feel colours many tracks, a mood abetted by the introspective lyrics and plaintive, wistful vocals. Certainly the opening “The Long Wait' begins things on a down note, in spite of the pretty aura conjured by the acoustic guitars, shimmering electronics and multi-tracked vocals. The tempo picks up considerably with the recording's standout track, “A Heart Without A Mind,” a glorious example of near-perfect electronic pop with its gorgeous arrangement of vocal counterpoint at the end. While the established mix of acoustic guitars, electronics, vocals, and melancholy melodies reappears on “You Pretend You Own This Place” and “Blow It Away From Your Eyes,” not all tracks conform to this template. Vocals are absent on “Forever, You Said Forever,” but in their place unsettling tapes of arguing voices are heard against an appropriately dark instrumental backing. Distorted vocal effects introduce “It Wouldn't Change A Thing' before segueing into a gentler vocal delivery while the dreamy “And I Have To Keep Reminding Myself To Be Pleased” boasts a hazy quality reminiscent of  his tracks on the Blue Skied an' Clear compilation. In stark contrast to the rest, the closing “If I Believed You/Back In Focus” is a buoyant, up-tempo slice of electropop and ends the recording on an inspired note.

While it might signal a progression for him, Styrofoam is hardly charting new ground here. Beyond Morr Music's own releases by artists like Ms. John Soda, Lali Puna, and Guitar, past recordings like Broadcast's The Noise Made By People, and Pulseprogramming's Tulsa For One Second have embraced conventional vocal-based song structures and an intended fusion of electronic and acoustic elements. So pervasive is the trend that even Jan Jelinek's La Nouvelle Pauvreté features vocals added to his spectral microsound mix. What's the explanation for this marked shift towards pop vocal electronica? Is it a desperate concession to the marketplace, or does it signify an organic development that cyclically will see a shift back to more abstract, less accessible approaches once the current trend exhausts itself? Perhaps the justifiable acclaim that greeted Múm's Finally We Are No One inspired others to attempt to realize a similar peak of song-based electronica. Certainly Styrofoam's latest can legitimately stake its place amongst others in the genre, although it's admittedly treading established ground in doing so. Furthermore, in spite of the subtle differences between its tracks, there is too great a degree of sameness overall. A more accomplished breadth of compositional approaches would leave a stronger impression of the work's overall merit.

May 2003