Dappled Cities – Zounds

Dappled Cities - Zounds
Dappled Cities – Zounds

Syndey, Australia’s Dappled Cities has enjoyed a devoted following Down Under since its lo-fi debut, A Smile, dropped back in 2004.  With a strong-willed intent to breakthrough stateside, the quintet has seized every opportunity since then to connect itself with American ears.  Beginning with the recording of 2006’s Granddance – which took place in Los Angeles and saw Dappled Cities’ experimental pop leanings develop even further – the band was able to ink a deal with Southern California powerhouse Dangerbird Records before undertaking a demanding schedule of U.S. performances.  Not immune to the stress, fatigue, and occasional disappointment associated with the rigors of life on the road, the members of Dappled Cities have had their fair share of band drama over the past three years, including the departure of a founding member and squalid living conditions in a single-bedroom NYC apartment.

For better or for worse (but usually for better), Dappled Cities has taken the trials and tribulations of the past three years and channeled it into the damaged art rock of Zounds, an album that finds new levels of emotional resonance ringing from the frenzied brand of psychedelic pop that the band perfected on its first two releases.

With new drummer Alan Kumpulainen filling in the vacancy left by Hugh Boyce and touring keyboardist Ned Cooke given a promotion to full-time status, the twelve tracks on Zounds illustrate a band capitalizing on its fine ability to craft hook-laden gems of danceable pop – and injecting them with a darker and more foreboding tint.  The results suggest a strong sense of restlessness, but the album is all the better for it: there are fresh ideas brimming from every track, surely to impress those with the patience to give the disc multiple spins.

Opening cut “Hold Your Back” takes little time in gathering momentum, as a kinetic drumbeat establishes a groove of startling urgency for some swirling synth lines and Tim Derricourt’s falsetto vocals about snaps echoing across the universe.  Throw in the tastefully used reverb and delay, and you’ve got a song with obvious celestial qualities.  From this point onward, the band continues to make a point of highlighting the talents of its two newest members; “Answer Is Zero” has a fustian drumbeat that rivals Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love,” while lead single “The Price” piles lush synth-string orchestrations on top of a gritty bass line and a disco-infused drumbeat.

The ominous harmonies and translucent vocals of “Wooden Ships” arrive at precisely the right moment, bringing with them a sense of respite after the electrified mood of the first three tracks.  The song is less chaotic than those that came before, allowing the listener to focus on the strong melodies, unorthodox textures, and Dave Rennick’s mad lyrics: “And all the patterns that we made / turned into these living shapes / and all the living kings remain / on the beach.”  The song coda’s is a majestic combination of wordless vocals, pristine guitar work, and a synthesizer solo that will do any Pink Floyd fan proud.

If there is anything that detracts at all from the overall success of Zounds, it’s that the liberal use of Ned Cooke’s keyboards eventually begin to come off as old hat, making Dappled Cities sound like they’re channeling the Killers’ love of early 80’s new wave.  Still, it’s hard not smirk just a little bit when you hear the cornball antics of a song “The Night Is Young At Heart.”  But even when the electronics overwhelm the songs – as they do in “Kids” – there is still reason to listen.  In the case of the aforementioned cut, it’s the heightened melodic presence of Alex Moore’s bass guitar and unorthodox lyrics like, “So long / may your lemmings tumble down / and bury deep your silly little town.”  The other silver lining to be found here is just how arresting a track like “Middle People” can be when the synths lay off a bit.  The track is a lilting and dreamy soundscape of shifting time signatures that almost sounds like the work of Elbow.  With sparser instrumentation than we’ve come to expect at this point on Zounds, the track’s sincerity and vulnerability really stands out.

For anyone with a jones for the psychedelic styles of bands like the Flaming Lips and MGMT, or the quirky antics of the Arcade Fire and Animal Collective, this is required listening.  I don’t know if Zounds will crack the unpredictable American music market, but let’s hope this third time is the charm.