This alternative pop trio from Deptford, England has connections with enough famous (and sundry) talent that you might not ever be able to comfortably settle in with their second and latest record. Most of it will undoubtedly sound gratifyingly nostalgic to the first time listener, what with the Van Dyke Parks string arrangements and the Danger Mouse production. Still, pegging these sample-happy Brits as just another pleasant but ultimately unnecessary listen is hard to do. It’s definitely not album of the year (nor would it have nabbed that distinction in 2007 when it was actually released on the other side of the Atlantic), but the Shortwave Set bring just enough innovation with them to make this 45 minute disc worth your while.
The album’s 11 tracks find the Shortwave Set creating an elixir where conventional pop structures and instrumentations brush shoulders with far more unpredictable samples, spastic electronics, and lush string arrangements. Even the eternally hip John Cale and his viola make an appearance! The album’s opener, “Harmonia,” features plenty of teardrop electronics and soft-spoken melodies that hover just above the groundwork of sampled strings and acoustic guitar. The song is downtempo and somber in tone, making the chorus’s “come on” vocals feel less like a suggestion and more like an urgent plea to get up just one more time.
“Replica” is one of the album’s standout track’s, where NIN-esque industrial percussion textures and eerie vocals give way to a lighter-waving anthem that finds singer Andrew Pettitt declaring, “your atom bomb will keep you warm, will take you home,” as the synth bass comes crashing back in with a subterranean thump. The song is leaps and bounds above most of the other tracks in terms of emotional scope and impact; it’s densely layered with epic results. “No Social” finds the Shortwave Set taking one of their greatest risks as they abandon their typically languid tempos in favor of a more cosmopolitan beat. The Motown inspired vocals, urban swagger, and funky bass are well suited to the lyric about how “everyone knows that a dog dressed in clothes is still a dog.” The whole thing is a bit quirky with its random electronic sputters and squeals, and yet it comes off as the most organic track on the entire record.
The arranging capabilities of Van Dyke Parks shine in all the right places on Replica Sun Machine. “Yesterdays To Come” finds some colorful and occasionally dissonant strings intermingling with many a cymbal roll that plays up the affair as a basic lesson in chamber pop. Before “I Know” dissolves into a piano-led jam, some irresistible tambourine and tremolo-treated guitar provide some additional color for Parks’ eastern-tinged orchestral harmonies.
The album’s biggest weakness is also one of its core features. There’s little debating that Swedish vocalist Ulrika Bjorsne is blessed with a pristine set of pipes, but her delivery forgoes warmth and passion for a Nico-worthy coolness that is altogether unaffecting. One such instance is on “Sun Machine,” where chime-like mallet percussion makes Bjorsne’s emotionless vocals sound even more precious.
The Shortwave Set are flying at their highest when they make use of their celebrity assets. Danger Mouse injects some needed rawness into an otherwise slick set of songs, and Van Dyke Parks takes the lessons learned from his years as a Beach Boys collaborator and applies just the right amount of acoustic trimming on a largely electronic project. It’s not a very immediate album, but that probably has something to do with the fact that it was recorded two years ago. Nonetheless, I’ve heard few projects that achieve the unorthodox blend acid-trip pop and noisy electronica like The Shortwave Set do. That alone makes the disc something to experience.