Friday, January 8, 2010

Music: "Heartland" by Owen Pallett

Even if you’ve never heard the name Owen Pallett, you have definitely heard his work. Pallett, who until Heartland released his solo material under the moniker Final Fantasy, has composed string arrangements for Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear, Beirut, The Last Shadow Puppets, The Rumble Strips, The Mountain Goats, and even the Pet Shop Boys and Mika.

His Final Fantasy material has always differed from his collaborations in that it more often sounded like it was done with a string quartet as opposed to a full orchestra. That was the case until Heartland, which he recorded with the Czech Symphony. Heartland is a concept album in which Pallett says, “The songs themselves form a narrative concerning a farmer named Lewis and the fictional world of Spectrum. The songs are one-sided dialogues with Lewis, a young, ultra-violent farmer, speaking to his creator.” “Midnight Directives” starts the album with a brass section, a sweeping orchestra, and pizzicato strings that pluck faster than fingers can possibly pluck. Immediately, we know we’re in for something bigger.

“Keep the Dog Quiet” sounds more like Pallett’s old material where he has a loop that he builds upon throughout the song – it’s nothing new, but the practice sounds fuller than ever before. “Lewis Takes Action” starts with a beat swiped from “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes; with lyrics like, “I’ve got a thirst for liquid gold,” it takes several listens to start understanding the dialogue, but it’s worth it.

“The Great Elewhere” opens with a synthesizer that takes the place of where Pallett would usually have a violin. The song features Dan Deacon-like drumming to support the orchestra, synth, and vocals; yes, there is a lot going on here. The song builds until it finishes in a cinematic flourish of strings and piano creating one of the most beautiful moments in anything Pallett has worked on.

Another highlight includes the sensual bass in the second half of “Oh Heartland, Up Yours!” which comes as a nice surprise. “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” features synthetic bird chirps, a wall of strings, and Pallett’s voice, which is as strong as ever. Towards the end of the song he repeats, “I’m never gonna give it to you” and you think, “Lewis means it!”

The album closes with “What Do You Think Will Happen Now?” which is the most stripped down track, making it a powerful closer. In the end, you realize how much work Pallett has put into this album - his first since 2006. Heartland takes more than one listen to understand, but when it makes sense, you’ll be thankful you put in the time. The album comes out on Tuesday, January 12. Below Pallett discusses the making of Heartland and more.

How and why does Heartland sound different from your previous work?

With Heartland I wanted to make a record that sounded mechanical and breathless. A steam-powered symphony orchestra.

You compose strings arrangements for so many different types of artists - what do you get out of doing those?

It's a nice balance, psychologically, to work on my own for months at a time, and then turn round and be at the service of my friends. It sounds granola, but nothing makes me happier than the success of my fellow musicians, and it is my pleasure to do what I can to assist them.

Do you have any dream projects that you'd love to do string arrangements for?

I don't want to stop doing pop arrangement, but I would love to get involved in some more experimental music.

What was it like working with the Czech Symphony for the album?

Harrowing. I spent ten days before the session finishing and refining the Heartland arrangements, barely sleeping and never leaving my hotel room in Prague. By the time the session date rolled around, I hadn't slept in several days and looked a mess. Happily, the orchestra was extremely professional, and the players were fantastic, so the actual session went brilliantly, considering I was shivering in the control room with my head in my hands.

What is your songwriting process like?

I don't write on a daily basis, which, I've learned, is kind of weird. I took a week in Lisbon after a tour to write the lyrics for Heartland, long before I started on the songs. Most of the songs were written in a single month in Toronto. I demoed everything with my violin and piano, and then went from there.

What else are you working on and what else do you have coming up?

I've been working on other people's records a bit, touring, working on a new live show, and writing lyrics for album number four. Right now I'm doing a film score in NYC.

Lewis Takes Off His Shirt (Live):

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