Whatever you’ll think about Passage, the hotly-anticipated debut album from Exitmusic, it’s difficult not to approach it with a certain amount of pre-conceptions based on what is already known about them. They are from the über-hipstery surroundings of Brooklyn. Both main band members, Aleksa Palladino and Devon Church, are married. The fact that Palladino has a role in hit HBO show Broadwalk Empire is bound to fill some with dread given the amount of unsuccessful acting-to-singing ventures there’ve been down the years.
It is of course best to leave all of these fears/trepidations/tediums at the door. They act as a refreshing antidote to the more uptempo and poppy boy-girl duos (not that’s any problem with that kind of thing so long as it’s good) such as Summer Camp. They deal with loss, destruction and despair and choose to do it by confronting it right in its face with noise. One of their videos (for early single The Sea) sees them soundtracking a collage of moving pictures which range from nuclear explosions to buildings crumbling down. This is less exit music for a film but more the soundtrack for a big-screen epic about the world’s end.
Several tracks follow the same basic template, and it would be very easy to dismiss this LP as a one-trick pony. However, what stops it from being a turgid and dull affair are the songs themselves, which are dark throughout yet almost always enthralling. Passage, as album openers go, is absolutely thrilling. It takes a while to build tension but once it explodes it is nothing short of exhilirating; the frenetic drums and feedback acting as a rush of adrenaline. It’s hard not to feel immediately overwhelmed but the overall effect is that it leaves you wanting more. And they deliver. The City is even more urgent-sounding as its chorus bursts into life whilst the melodrama of The Modern Age ascends, at first gradually before picking up speed and fury, until it gently comes back down to Earth.
There are moments when the sonic turmoil is reined in slightly. Yet the bleak outlook remains and Palladino’s vocals are moved further into the foreground. Whenever the volume increases, her vocals are powerful enough to match the disorder around her. But it’s on the sparse numbers that you really pay attention. The Wanting, a track driven by a repetitive piano motif that is gloomy and resigned, finds our protagonist weary and run-down, whilst the anguish on numbers such as The Cold and the funereal closer Sparks Of Light hammer home the sense of despondency prevalent throughout.
Where they go from here will be interesting to follow, as this is definitely not a soundscape they can repeat with each release. They need more varied songwriting structures for them to push forward. Quite how much darker they can go in terms of mood is of course unclear, but there has to be a glimmer of hope somewhere down the line. Yet for the time being it’s very hard not to fall under Exitmusic’s intoxicating spell. Best not to try.