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Xeno and Oaklander - Sentinelle

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Artist: Xeno and Oaklander

Album: Sentinelle

Label: Wierd

Review date: Feb. 2, 2010

The conceptual promise laid out by cold wave and its related siblings under the synth pop umbrella was, in its heyday, one of unique power. The rise of affordable commercially available synthesizers ushered in a new era of music making with a bold new paradigm: pop songs would become battlefields, where each traditional signifier of drama, expressiveness or "rocking out" would be undercut by a contrasting element that matched its power with icy futurism. Thus, fast tempos were realized by boxy drum machines, dramatic melodies were played on steely synths, and plaintive vocals were soaked in reverb, as if the singer was just out of reach. On a macro level, the music rejected the dramatic crescendos of rock, soul and related genres for a more baroque approach to layering. In the new synthetic world, where each musical voice had such a tightly constricted dynamic range, songs would build by becoming more dense, not more intense. What one feels is a certain (well-documented) hopelessness, or perhaps helplessness, which was arguably a supremely sane response to the cold war, the Reagan administration, and the general, total decline of 1960s idealism.

And now itís back in style.

For those of you who have heeded the call of band-du-jour Cold Cave and want to go deeper, for those who have fallen for the rare tracks dug up by labels like Minimal Wave and Dark Entries and want more, or for those who are already intense nerds about this stuff and lament daily having missed the party the first time around, NYCís Xeno and Oaklander (Liz Wendelbo and Sean McBride) are here for you with Sentinelle. More than most bands mining this territory, they take a profoundly classical approach to this music, worrying precious little about advancing cold wave into, or adapting it for, the 21st century. Instead, using exclusively vintage analogue gear and lots of live playing, Wendelbo and McBride have created what amounts to a fetishistic, perhaps even idolatrous love letter to a lost era.

In a lot of important ways, Sentinelle is an unmitigated success. It certainly succeeds at faithfully invoking the spirit and sound of its sources, and sounds great while doing it. There is an assuredness to the playing and songwriting thatís evident from the start, placing it head and shoulders above much of the competition. And there is a generally high bassline of quality across the board -- there are no duds to speak of.

The problem is, itís also pretty boring. Xeno and Oaklander come across as skilled craftsmen rather than expressive artists, with many of their biggest decisions sounding so familiar as to appear rote. I didnít find myself getting swept up in their daring creative vision so much as admiring their handiwork. Perhaps thatís the point, but it feels a bit like a coolly-played game of record enthusiast one-up-manship rather than a living, breathing band.

I imagine it would have more crossover appeal (to the world outside of cold wave superfandom) if there were more standout melodies, hooks, orÖ something. But the album generally floats by in a single wave of genre-worship monotony. Where there is disruption to the formula is where I found my ears perking up. "Nuit" kicks off with some intense, physically demanding synths and builds a nicely heartbreaking melody over a simple arpeggio that glues the track together until a kick drum enters the picture just as the song is approaching its close. It sounds like a heart beating too fast, buried under mournful chords, and is the best example of the barely-repressed energy and intensity that makes this genre worth investigating in the first place. Certainly, itís effective in a way that the disaffected dance vibe of its neighboring tracks canít touch. "Rendez-Vous Díor" similarly deploys negative space to deep impact by slowing the tempo down considerably. The opening chord crashes down in a nice haze of white noise before giving way to a menacing baseline and a keening, crying countermelody. The track has teeth, managing to balance violence and melancholy in a chill, electro groove.

Unfortunately, after that, interest wanes. Too many of these songs work a strikingly similar terrain, with too few offering up a key to their musical locks. Most of Sentinelle comes off as a well-executed, informed genre workout, down to the lyrical tropes about waterfronts, workers and memories. Wendelbo and McBride are trustworthy guides, obviously fluent in a language that most remember faintly from the mix tapes of youth, if at all. Whether their immaculate work will bend your mind is another question.

By Daniel Martin-McCormick

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