by Ben Resnik
Figurines’ eponymous fourth studio album has a lot in common with another import from Denmark: Hamlet. Like the Dane, Figurines has a lot of ideas and a lot of drive but is often less than successful in bringing those ideas to fruition. Also unlike Hamlet (spoiler!), the album’s final track does not end in the gruesome death of every single band. Far from a tragedy, Figurines is a fairly solid album with a lot of room for improvement.
It’s easy to see Figurines’ promise in the opening track “Hanging from Above”, which manages to evoke the sliding vocals of Sunset Rubdown without detracting from the originality of the songwriting. This vocal delivery makes it difficult to grasp the melody at times, but the chorus always brings it back. The weak part of the song comes at the very end, when the simple but solid drumming that characterizes the rest of the album gives way to several bars of weird, lilting, and atonal string music before opening up into a harmony straight out of Of Montreal’s Hissing Fauna. It’s a bizarre shift, and it feels like it could have been a good, entirely separate song if it had been fleshed out more. As it is, “Hanging from Above” comes across as no more than a very good song.
This problem resurfaces in the second song, “The Great Unknown”. Like “Hanging from Above,” this track starts out very well, with lo-fi guitar, bass, and drums giving it an almost garage-rock feel and a catchy melody to boot, which then shifts into a rather unpleasant piano-and-falsetto bridge. The two melodies fight it out for the entirety of the song; the first wins, to the song’s ultimate benefit, but the result is a fractured piece that sounds like two catchy songs laid on top of each other. The lack of cohesion prevents it from evolving fully.
These perplexing sections aside, the instrumentation on Figurines is uniformly and consistently strong; drums, piano, bass, guitar, and an assortment of other instruments reinforce lead singer Christian Hjelm’s voice well. When it works, it works. “New Colors”, for example, is an excellent piece of surreal pop that brings back the Of Montreal comparisons, but in a way that feels more inspired-by than mimicked. “Free Today” takes the same melodically segmented approach as the first two numbers, but this time it works; it shows Figurines’ potential as a band: dreamlike and bizarre, but incurably catchy, and coherent if you squint a little.
Unfortunately, for every positive the band has, there’s a negative. While Figurines certainly share Of Montreal’s sound, the band lacks Kevin Barnes’ idiosyncratic lyrical genius. In “New Colors”, which owes so much to his influence, Hjelm bleats “If only my eyes could tell her what I plan to give her / If only my eyes could tell that we’ll never be the same.” This is not the poetry of the Bard, but then again, poetic perfection is clearly not Hjelm’s aim.
After awhile, though, the mediocrity of the lyrics gets distracting. “We Got Away” is a shift to a slower, heavier style, but what the band tries to sell as pathos comes off as trite. Figurines’ penchant for harmony keeps the music interesting, but when harmony is the main thing bolstering a song about deep emotional angst, you’ve got a problem with your angst.
As the album continues, the weakness of the songwriting grows more and more frustrating. In the middle of the album’s seventh track “Every Week”, I found myself browsing a shared music library that had popped up on my iTunes (the library’s unknown owner had excellent taste) because of the song’s tedious repetition. Then, the distractingly mediocre chorus in “Lucky to Love” (“All I want to do is to wake up and make it / All I want to do is to wake up and break it,” rinse, repeat) diminishes what would otherwise be an excellent song.
The most exasperating part of Hjelm’s lyrical failures is that he has proven more than capable of writing a decent line, even in this very same album. “Poughkeepsie” and “Unable to Drift” are both dark, interesting pieces that manage to deal with deeper material without abandoning the band’s energetic, distinctive vibe. Every poor image is made doubly worse by the promising one immediately before it.
You can chalk up a bad album to an off period for a band, later convincing yourself that they will redeem themselves on their next release. A mediocre album is a much more painful experience; the feeling that a couple extra weeks and a pep talk could have turned it all around makes the disappointing reality that much more difficult to move past. Still, Figurines has lessons both good and bad to teach to its maker. Like Hamlet, sometimes all it takes to live up to your potential is a setback.