On their last two albums, Parts and Labor haven't eschewed their more experimental tendencies so much as incorporated them into an anthemic rock framework, with somewhat mixed results. The grit is still there, but, when buried underneath soaring vocals about great divides, it's admittedly difficult to groove on the sounds alone. Basically, if frontman Dan Friel's vocals aren't your cup of tea, you'd be forgiven for entirely foregoing the operation.
The band most likely realized this disconnect and released the pretty righteous Escapers One 12" on Criterion's Broklyn Beats label back in 2006. It was everything a fan of Parts and Labor's noisier side could've hoped for: extremely overdriven electronic beats with sheets of standard P&L synth buzz on top, vocals not included. To know that they could still fit in with the Broklyn Beats aesthetic was somewhat of a relief.
Friel's latest solo outing Ghost Town continues in that direction, but expands its focus to encompass melody and song structure. I've only previously heard Friel's solo stylings on 2004's Sunburn, and the difference between that work and Ghost Town is striking. The aggressive crunch that permeated Sunburn and Escapers One is present here, but the damn-near hymn-like melodies unexpectedly wring emotion out of what was previously soulless, albeit effective, rock/electronic posturing.
Characterizing the album as "keyboard noise-pop" doesn't really do Friel justice. Unlike the Paw Tracks clan, his music isn't for bedroom introverts, and unlike Dan Deacon, he doesn't fall prey to self-conscious gimmickry. There's really no scene that you could file this album under – Friel is out there on his own. As such, the best tracks on Ghost Town feel like revelations, like new ways of communicating shared musical ideas. "Desert Song" starts out by attaching a dirty "Sister Ray" stomp to its wailing keyboard explorations; by the end of the song, it has managed to touch on elements of rhythmic process and repetition that only folks like Raster-Noton and Pimmon really concern themselves with. It marries that degree of conceptual purpose to a two and a half minute showcase for Friel's typically lovely melodic noodlings. In the context of rock band vocals, these melodies aren't particularly exceptional (Friel is no Paul McCartney), but juxtaposed against soundscapes that share elements with the above-referenced artists, the idea feels particularly refreshing.
Not every experiment on Ghost Town fares as well. Tracks like "Buzzards" and "Ghost Town (pt. 2),” though still enjoyable, are simply too busy to allow for any sort of introspection. Still, Friel has left himself plenty of room to grow, and the closer "Horse Heaven" hints at what he might some day accomplish. Mournful electronics flitter back and forth between structured melodicism and abstraction of Ralph Lundsten's sort while never losing a grounded sense of wonder. If appropriate vocals were layered on top (we're back to that!), Friel could create a modern-day Taking Tiger Mountain.