Sunday, July 6, 2014

Alejandra O'Leary and the Champions of the West's Heartspace Timepiece on CD

I've had to learn this lesson more than once--you can't form an opinion about a certain piece of music if you're driving in your car the first time you listen to it. I remember doing this more than a decade ago when I first listened to Yo La Tengo's And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. My synopsis? Quiet, and not enough going on--or as Janet Dudley once wrote in her Listener review, "there's not enough there there." Then of course I listened to it on my home rig and immediately fell in love with it. The same exact thing happened with Scott Walker's Drift ("what a pretentious, odious, artsy-fartsy mess"), Neutral Milk Hotel's In An Aeroplane Over the Sea ("what's with the musical saw, guys?") and, most recently, Swans' The Seer ("am I in hell?"). Let them get under your skin, however, and they'll eventually own you.

I'm not going to lump Detroit singer Alejandra O'Leary's latest album with those somewhat difficult yet fascinating works because this, in comparison, is just a upbeat collection of '80s pop songs. But when I first listened to it last month on a road trip to Denver, I got a little grumpy because it sounded like another cute but quirky girl channeling songs from the likes of 'Til Tuesday, The Motels and perhaps even such '90s passing fancies as Lisa Loeb and Natalie Imbruglia. I didn't even play it for very long--I was in a carload full of people who are less adventurous than I am when it comes to new music, and I thought I'd be torturing them if I didn't press EJECT. I wound up replacing it with the Solid Gold Balls CD I just reviewed, which was a relative success.

I gave it another listen when I got home, on my main rig. Strangely enough, it sounded completely different as if someone switched CDs on me. I even invited one of my fellow erstwhile travelers into the room and asked, "Do you remember that CD I played in the car that no one seemed to like? This is it!" The response, of course, was "Really? It didn't sound anything like this. This is good." So it's the strangest thing, and I don't know why this happened unless it's another case of an artist who's a bit too thoughtful and a bit too poetic for a casual listen on a crappy car CD player.

So what was quirky and stringent in an almost foreign way--Alejandra's voice--became smooth and sexy and exuberant. Her band, which seemed merely competent on the road, became a collective of uncanny impressionists who could play just like all your favorite bands from the '80s and even the '90s without a shred of disrespect. Even the rare touches of country-rock, found buried in songs like "Beat Ohio," suggest that the Champions of the West may be the first band to successfully pay homage to the sound of the '90s by fleshing it out and pointing towards what will define that time in the coming years. I've been waiting for someone to do that for a while.

So the morale is not to judge a book by its cover, or something vague like that. The very reason why we audiophiles own such nice audio equipment is so that we can hear deep into the recordings. We scoff at those who listen to music as just "something in the background." So if you happen upon Heartspace Timepiece in the near future, give it a close listen and you'll be rewarded.

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