Despite the time, effort and craft that goes into analog-based performance, recording, production, mixing and playback of records in all genres, music is inherently becoming an increasingly digitally-centric medium. Despite this somewhat inexorable truth, there’s no rule that says you can’t be messy about it. Montreal duo Look Vibrant have embraced that ethos with their debut EP, Only Qualms. Their eccentric art-pop style carries with it an unmistakable signature of the electronically strange, a Cheshire Cat filling in the fuzzy gaps between its low-res samples.
Opener “Clouds” is surprisingly angular in spite of its fluffy name: boppy, bit-crushed bass trades with plinking slapback delays on the guitars, while Matthew Murphy’s high-pitched vocal timbre treads a fine line between the sweet and the neurotic. However, like most of the songs on Only Qualms, it’s a genuine pop song at heart, behind the bright, wiggling appendages and semi-grotesque adornments.
“Callous Reaction,” by contrast, is a shredded slice of candy-bright noise-pop, ticking away in a barely controlled burst of hi-hat energy and exuberant yells. Thundering drums, contorted toylike synths and swooning choral samples undercut the distorted yelps and croons of the lead vocal. It’s all about cutting loose, devil-may-care: “you can take my body and you can steal my soul,” Murphy sings, before unwinding the song into a kaleidoscopic outro. He doesn’t seem to mind.
“Miracle,” oddly, drills down to a melodic structure and chord progression that can’t help but make a warped echo of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” though not particularly to its detriment. There’s an astringent quality, a narcissistic tension overlaying the disco-approved funk riffage that anchors the song, that blooms to full angst and paranoia in the bridge section, recontextualizing the lifts in each chorus into a series of ever-more-insistent pleas for acceptance.
The album’s ferocious drum mix, which balances well against the array of oddball instrumentation on much of Only Qualms, unfortunately overtakes “Born Smart,” subsuming the warped-vinyl-vintage vibes that emanate warmly in layers of pads and vocal harmonies, twittering samples, and plaintive leads. The stompy breakdown at mid-song comes trundling out of nowhere, but somehow the whole messy hot fudge sundae of a thing just barely holds together in the end.
Fortunately, album closer “Berry Juice” takes hold of the stripped-down approach just when “Born Smart” could have used it most. The waltzing acoustic guitar matches perfectly with the song’s (and the album’s) Alice In Wonderland approach, childishness mixing with unabashed morbid strangeness, “blood and berry juice.” After a rousing round of “lah-dah”s, the song’s suddenly metallic fade-out into stark minimal self-oscillation is a bit of a textural gut-punch, but it serves to reinforce the message that even some of our favourite fairytales had decidedly chilling origins.
Top Tracks: “Clouds,” “Callous Reaction”
Rating: Strong Hoot (Good) + *Swoop*