Cole Bettles – ‘Robot People’

Impressing in a range of styles, from chamber-pop flourishes to late-night jazz and folk-ready introspection, Robot People is a gripping new album from Cole Bettles. The San Francisco-based singer/songwriter melds gorgeous production within timely thematic pursuits. Bettles notes that his debut album “derives from my fear that humans acting like robots is far more apocalyptic than robots acting human.”

“I Keep Falling” opens the album with a consistent sense of momentum. Plucky string infusions and dynamic vocals, spanning from debonair contemplation to soaring whimsy, lead a radiant overall production. The title-referencing hook dazzles with glistening keys and warming acoustics, as the “going nowhere,” lyrical punctuation aligns well with the dazed yet melodic charm. Flourishing string arrangements further the ravishing production into the satiating conclusion. Aesthetically, there’s a fond likeness to Andrew Bird throughout. The album is set into beautiful motion with “I Keep Falling.”

A balmier, late-night intrigue shows in the subsequent “You Seemed,” where brass and organs combine for a Bourbon Street-like setting. Swooning, wordless backing vocals and trickling guitars complement a mellowly entrancing central chorus, sliding smoothly into a jazzy, lounge-set exterior with a raspy Tom Waits-esque vocal inflection thereafter. Right away, with the opening one-two punch, Robot People impresses with its range, from chamber-pop radiance to jazzy suaveness.

The album’s title track is consuming in both its lavish orchestration and thematic poignancy. The salutations to robots send chills amidst comforting brass and twinkling piano, with the references to an “airport bar,” proving fitting — as are the aspirations to cruise “down easy street.” The “he takes the missus out with his fellow robot friends,” and “reminisce about the days of the human,” references prove foreboding, where narration of more expected endeavors — nights out with friends, among them — being undertaken by people resembling robotic archetypes, rather than the once very-human innateness of these excursions.

AI, the cloud, crypto, and self-driving cars are addressed with compelling flair on “WTF!” — bearing a likeness to Of Montreal’s funky commentaries and wit, with shades of Sparks as well. The swipes at altruistic modernity build into ominous guitar and spacey synths as the vocals ask the titular question, venturing into delectably psych-friendly guitar soaring; it makes for a seamless lead-in to the epic soul/R&B gem “I Need You,” enamoring with a lusher though equally artful engagement.

The album continues its creatively melodic precision throughout, from the Nilsson-esque brassy weightlessness of “Before We Roll” to the hypnotic jangle-pop composure within “Long Road.” Robot People is a thorough success from Cole Bettles, exploring modern plights of humanity within a comfortably harmonious blend of jazz, pop, and rock sophistication.

Mike Mineo

I'm the founder/editor of Obscure Sound, which was formed in 2006. Previously, I wrote for PopMatters and Stylus Magazine.

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