The Minneapolis act’s perfectly paced latest collection could be used to teach students classic album structure methodology
It’s a little strange that, in our era when most music is experienced online as individually selected tracks or via curated playlists, the album is still the default release model for the music industry. And, what’s more surprising is that so many albums still follow the sort of tracklisting logic that was applied 50 or more years ago, despite the acknowledged fact that only the most die-hard physical-medium fetishists will always play all the music in the same order. Poliça’s Madness – the Minneapolis act’s sixth or seventh album, depending on which online tally you believe – could be used to teach students classic album structure methodology.
Lesson one: start with a big tune. Madness opens with Alive’s ominous three-note bassline. It may not be startlingly original but delivers a glorious bad-trip club vibe, and when Channy Leaneagh’s ominous vocals join the submerged drums the track blossoms into the malevolent cousin of a dance-pop banger. The chorus introduces a little more optimism, as the track slowly swells to a sort of paranoid euphoria; in fact, punch up the vocal volume and edit, and this could be one of those arty East European electro tracks that get highly praised in Eurovision (though never win).
Lesson two: follow up with something equally strong, but more ambiguous. Violence somewhat resembles the regret-seeped torch songs of the trip-hop era, but the stately vocal sits upon a shifting backing which sounds like some cellos melting. The bass drum comes in with unexpected vigour, but it still sounds sub-aquatic, the rest of the soundfield being a furling forest of synth tones and Rolodex-flicking percussion. This ever-shifting sonic mutation, typifying the album, may reflect producer Ryan Olson’s use of the “anthropomorphic production tool” AllOvers(c), and it certainly reflects the cover artwork, a blur of body parts and fleshy abstraction that looks like an orgy hasn’t finished downloading.
Lesson three: change the tempo. Madness’s third track, Away, is a big-boned ballad which could have been a forgotten Girls Aloud single, except once again the backing is gloopily muffled, giving the emotive vocal a clear focus. It’s pretty great, and features enough smothered whines and burbles to be useful if you wanted to know what a noughties R’n’B lament might sound like from inside Darth Vader’s helmet.
Lesson four: hide the less good material. Alas, the following three songs don’t live up to these openers. The title track boasts some nice glitchy synths sitting somewhere between Vangelis and Autechre, and the vocal is breathily intimate (a cross between Björk’s Headphones and Frank Sinatra serenading the barflies on In The Wee Small Hours), but beyond this neither the harmonic structure nor the melody are hugely interesting. If this were being performed on a piano in the corner of a swanky bar, you’d barely notice – especially whilst trying to work out how a bottle of beer costs £12. The track is rescued by the arrival of some mournfully scratchy folk violin, sounding like an arrangement of A Lark Ascending at a banshee funeral.
Blood starts with some excellent robo-dub in a Basic Channel style, but this is quickly replaced by a lacklustre mid-tempo tune; if we were back at Eurovision, this is a plodding Luxembourg entry that can’t get beyond the semis. Fountain is a little better, a slow resigned piano creating an undertow that deepens the effect of the reverby FX-laden vocal, under which bassist Chris Bierden adds subtle curlicues. Again, it’s the production rather than the composition that carries the track, but you might prick up your ears in the swanky bar, as you ruefully emptied your £8 ramekin of cashews.
Lesson five: end on a big emotion. Sweet Memz may have a horribly knowing title, but its delightful, frosty dream-pop vocals sharing space with keyboard tones that sound like bugles playing for the fallen dead in a thick mist, over a surprisingly bouncy drum pattern. It’s a strong ending to a perfectly paced album, but despite the elegant sequencing, there are definitely tracks you’ll come back to far more than others.