Part experimental, part indie-pop, Kisses to the Sky — the new release from N.C.-based collective Oulipo is as risky as it is dreamy. The album “takes inspiration from the studio pop melodrama of Talk Talk, Phil Collins, and the two Bruces (Springsteen & Hornsby)” says the group’s Bandcamp page. But you don’t have to be schooled in those artists to get the visceral sweep of lead track “Nite Legs.” Driving beats and cool melodies (and, around the two-minute mark, an otherworldly sample that recalls the world-beat of Deep Forest) set a precedent for the eight-track album.
“Dolphins” is dancey (somehow appropriate for its aquatic namesake) with a crisp snap of percussion and an electronic shimmer. The intro extends, unhurried, for a full minute before the lyrics start. And then the song thrums and with the kind of fantasy-fueled intensity (and without the cheesy saxophone solos) of a Psychedelic Furs deep cut.
The ethereal vocal sample at the opening of “Lovers on the Moon” burns brightly against a backdrop of ambient (and dissonant) noise. But that churn and controlled chaos slices cleanly away for Ryan Trauley’s smooth voice. It could almost be an Everything But the Girl-meets-Bombay Jayashri mashup with a lightly applied layer of industrial grit. “Sweet butterfly of love, come kiss away these dreams,” Trauley sings over a ricocheting heartbeat of kick drum and guitar tones, in yet another of the track’s many facets.
Earning points for the best song title, “Shine on You Crazy Bastard” boomerangs and bristles with energy. Brass bounces, percussion pops and strings strike and recoil. Vocals echo into infinite darkness, but the purposeful punch of each verse is felt even if not fully comprehended. The track makes for strange bedfellows with its successor, “Prisoner of Love.” But that song, with it sampled child chorus, sonic sluices and builds of intensity, is a standout. If Oulipo (currently with Tim Matthews on guitar and keys, Avery Sullivan on drums and Frank Meadows on bass) has mined the best of ’80s pop and alt-pop; “Prisoner of Love” maximizes that distillation of influences and mastery of emotive choruses and instrumental apexes. (This song, too, shares DNA with Twin Shadow‘s retro-feeling but very contemporary catalog.)
“Amsterdam Shag” feels more electronic, more abstract. Its futuristic whirrs and blips share space with substantial percussion that varies from a driving beat to a muscular shimmy. And “Blue Flames” picks up on that propulsion while steering the vehicle of the song back into dancing/fist-pumping/video-warranting territory. But really, each track on Kisses to the Sky begs for its own short film. Or a John Hughes-meets-Tim Burton movie to score.
The album takes its title from the final track of the same name. Here there is a saxophone, one that will make even the most ardent ’80s music avoider rethink the woodwind instrument. A flourish of cymbals, the ominous pulse of bass and Trauley’s vocal, cool and clear, introduce four minutes of palpable ache. To be able to hear that song without prior knowledge of its influences — to somehow develop an amnesia to the Phil Collins catalog and the output of both Bruces for just four minutes — would likely prove that this song stands on its own. But even as a tribute in any small way, it rings true. There’s no wink, no “Sexy Sax Man” baggage. Just a tightly-crafted conclusion to a highly addictive recording project.