Music critics are not fearless creatures. Take me, for example. Because I'd always heard Portland's Wild Ones described as "synth pop" I steered clear in order to avoid what I figured would be misplaced reverence for the halcyon days of MTV. Based on the evidence presented on their new album Keep It Safe, I'm relieved to admit that I was laboring under a misconception. Instead of polluting my atmosphere with hyper-clever keyboard doodles and the clatter of electronic drums, Wild Ones appear to be a capable crew of musicians that create thoroughly modern, emotionally rich, guilt-free pop music that's lacking only in artiface and contrivance.
The meticulous arrangement of all manner of keyboards, from the dancing nightclub piano on "It's Real" to the effervescent synthesizers bubbling away on "Curse Over Me," keep singer Danielle Sullivan's wondrous waiflike voice smartly attired in the latest fashions. Rather than recalling ye old new wavers, the music here is more closely aligned with similarly upbeat sounding (though unstable of mood) Scandinavian pop acts such as Lykke Li or El Perro del Mar, for whom breaking up and dancing are not mutually exclusive activities. Sullivan, to her credit, has a less affected delivery, never upstaging her bandmates or a plush melody.
July 5 at 9 pm
Ocassionally, on the band's debut debut EP You're a Winner, Sullivan seemed like a hamster trying to control a firehose, and the results, though thoroughly charming, were all over the place. On new songs like "Rivals" and "Row" she is relaxed and in complete command, her voice poised on a teeter-totter that tilts between playful and wretched, while keyboardist Thomas Himes and guitarist Clayton Knapp cunningly weld together propulsive, arresting layers of sound that burst and bloom around her like a personal fireworks display. On "Nina" all these elements come irresistably together, as the song bounces and bounds, its buoyancy inevitably deflated by a somber finale in which Sullivan's vocal drops from frisky to forlorn over the absence of a special friend.
Keep It Safe does exactly what it's supposed to do—it sounds fresh, rhythmically stimulating, and catchy as that thing that's been going around. But with Wild Ones, you get a full emotional spectrum with your confection, truth, trauma and tonic all in one poppy pill.