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Owen Pallett - Heartland

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Artist: Owen Pallett

Album: Heartland

Label: Domino

Review date: Jan. 7, 2010

There are a number of facts about the Toronto-based songwriter and composer Owen Pallett that seem relevant but that nonetheless are not, at least not where Heartland is concerned. For example, there’s the fact that he helps make string arrangements for the Arcade Fire—Heartland is all cool detachment, far from the Arcade Fire’s heated emotion. There’s also the fact that until he changed it a few days ago to avoid a lawsuit from a certain video game franchise, Heartland was to be released under the name Final Fantasy, which might make you think you’re beginning some escapist jaunt into a land of elves and dragons. And finally, there’s the fact that Heartland is an ambitious orch-pop record that never met a percussion flourish or violin tremolo it didn’t like. Well, actually, that last one is relevant, but maybe not in the way you’d think.

Explaining what Heartland actually is is more difficult. Scott Walker’s The Drift is close, in that both albums have an air of mystery (the listener gets the sense that something very important is going on, but it’s hard to tell exactly what it is). But Heartland isn’t nearly as dark or forbidding, and there are occasional Leonard-Bernstein-on-Broadway rhythms that wouldn’t make sense in Walker’s music.

The comparison is still tempting, though, in part because of Heartland’s arrangements. The key players are Pallett (who sings and plays various string and keyboard instruments) along with percussionists Jeremy Gara (of the Arcade Fire) and Ed Reifel, but the St. Kitts Winds and the Czech Symphony Strings also figure very prominently. The multi-continent recording process (the album was made in Iceland, the Czech Republic, Canada and the U.S.) was well worth the trouble, because Heartland is that rare art-pop record where the zillions of instruments all seem to have good reasons for being there.

In 2007, Bright Eyes performed with members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. (My girlfriend liked the opening band, and the packed-in parking scheme kept us from leaving until after the concert had ended. That’s my excuse.) The addition of orchestral instruments was bizarre, even for a band as cluelessly narcissistic as Bright Eyes—-having some of the world’s best classical musicians play the simple, silly lines that were written for them was like hunting squirrel with a howitzer. One of the stranger subplots in the last 10 years of indie rock has been the addition of classical instruments—-the percentage of artists who both gain something from them and know how to use them is relatively small, and yet an enormous number of artists do use them, and critics are usually convinced by them when they do.

Heartland gets its classical instruments right. It helps that they aren’t mere accoutrements—-it’s hard to imagine what most of the songs would sound like without them. Pallett (who also composes classical music) writes for strings and winds with boldness and creativity that are rare in pop music, and the “classical” instruments have obviously received plenty of attention in the recording process as well.

These may seem like prosaic things to focus on, but they’re important for two reasons. First, for what seems like enormous number of indie rock bands interested in dressing their music up with every imaginable marker of sophistication and ambition, Heartland is a pretty serious kick in the pants.

Second, and more importantly, the balance between Heartland’s arrangements and Pallett’s voice is a major reason it captures the listener’s imagination so thoroughly. It’s unusual to hear arrangements this rich with a voice as understated as Pallett’s. Most contemporary classical music still bizarrely adheres to an antiquated, operatic style of singing that developed before the microphone was created. Since classical music still hasn’t figured out that the microphone makes it possible for singers to sound like human beings and not like shrieking vultures or gargling elephants, it’s welcome to hear a record that features very colorful arrangements and a voice that actually sounds good.

Pallett’s voice is a bit like that of Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch-—quiet, small, fitting easily into the swirl of instrumental texture that surrounds him. For that reason, yet another fact about Heartland that isn’t as germane as it initially appears is that it’s a sci-fi concept album about a farmer. The lyrics mostly go by undetected, and individual lines (which are often surprisingly defiant) go unnoticed for the first several listens, as the melodies (which are deft and often very beautiful) and the arrangements attract most of the listener’s attention.

Another way of putting it, though, is that the lyrics take time to reveal themselves, and that’s a very good thing, because the music welcomes the sort of close listening required to get much out of the lyrics anyway. This is a great album, and you’re probably going to want to hear it again and again.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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