There’s treasure buried in Fargo. One million dollars, buried on the side of a desolate highway, under a barbed wire fence marked with a red handled ice scraper. Or at least that’s according to the Coen brothers’ film named after that snow swept city in North Dakota. Fargo begins with the title card proclaiming “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987.” After that, Fargo became a hotspot for film-noir nuts looking to indulge in a bit of a treasure hunt.
So when the Coens finally revealed that Fargo‘s storyline is in fact fictional, journalists went ape, especially once a story broke in 2001 that a 28-year-old Japanese woman had died hunting for Fargo‘s million (a story in itself that would prove almost as imaginary as the original lie). Treasure in Fargo, however, may not be completely illusory, for Fargo trio Secret Cities make music that’s delightfully otherworldly and racked with as much tension as any film by those rapscallions Joel and Ethan. This is treasure buried not under metres of snow, but layers of distorted loops, rumbling toms and AM-radio crackle.
Pink Graffiti pays slight homage to its near-namesake Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti by virtue of the album’s lo-fi recording ethic, but Secret Cities are more like Ariel Pink wandering around woodlands meditating about youth and Brian Wilson rather than becoming a beacon of creativity amidst the decay of Los Angeles. It’s that purity of heart and mind that Secret Cities possess, and it’s channelled to create beautiful chamber-pop that bursts with gorgeous melodies. Even though they are hidden underneath all manner of drones and fuzz, they shine through as the album’s biggest plus point.
Songs such as opener Pink City swoon and evoke a romanticism of innocence as well as indifference: “We have a lot to say, but it would take all day.” It’s a line that is infinitely idealistic yet hilariously apathetic. The vocals are distant and distorted, almost slurred, while guitars jangle and reverberate and pounding pianos are accompanied by all manner of percussion, including mutilated drum loops and handclaps. Each song is grandly orchestral in its arrangement, condensed, then subsequently released back into the wild through a forest of fog. The album’s second track, Brothers, dares the listener not to whistle along to the song’s main refrain. Pink Graffiti Parts 1 and 2 remind of Arcade Fire both at their most macabre and ecstatic. Part 2 contains chiming guitars which bob up and down throughout the song as thundering drums threaten to dominate, and Charlie’s voice is in the Thom Yorke spectrum – gloriously dark, it gives the song a sinister tone. Part 1, which stylistically succeeds Part 2 on the track listing, is a much happier affair with stabbing piano chords played over soaring strings and, yes, more whistling.
For most of the album the lyrics are obscured, pushed to the back of the mix, making the listener concentrate carefully on the vocal melodies, grabbing hold of any line which becomes intelligible and taking from that whatever they can. This in turn creates an unnerved mystery about each spectral ballad or snap-and-crackle noise-pop piece. But sometimes it feels a little one-paced and, on the first few listens, disinterest is but a stone’s throw away. Luckily for Secret Cities though, the more listens the album gets, the more enjoyable it becomes. Like the possibility of buried treasure, something on this album calls out from under the snow and entices with a romance of the unknown just to dig that little bit deeper.