Soundtrack: “Live at The Mothlight” by Tin Foil Hat

The eight tracks of Live at The Mothlight by Tin Foil Hat — the synth-pop project of Jared Hooker — are the sonic equivalent of a series of experimental short films. Immersive, thoughtful and surreal, they unfold along nonlinear story lines and weirdly danceable melodies.

Borrowing from dream-pop, lounge, disco and techno, Hooker’s album is as much a Frankenstein creation as a lush tapestry. But the beauty of one plays off an repulsiveness of the other, and no one song is completely the property of aesthetic appeal or nefariousness. The track “Meet Your Maker,” a burbling, twitchy dance number, changes mood when the lyrics come in. Suddenly the party gives way to a nightmare, though even as Hooker sings, “All I know is I don’t want to die alone,” his voice snaps and pops to match the brisk tempo and crisp beats.

But the eerie fantasy begins with the first notes of lead track “Still Floating.” Lounging and languid, the song builds on gossamer melodies and spacey warbles. Hooker’s vocal rises into a cool upper register. It’s not a perfect lyrical performance, but it’s daring. And the art of this collection is in its risk-taking — how far can music be pushed and still retain elements of entertainment and emotional relatability? Hooker finds that edge and continually prods its boundaries.

The progression of that artistic process plays out in “Whatever.” Hooker sings, “I risk my life for a pipe dream / I want to tell my story / They simply say ‘Whatever, / I think we’ve heard enough.’” The vocal delivery is theatrical, punchy, hinting at jazz hands and arabesques that make full use of the stage. The music, which depicts the isolation and strangeness of experimentation, wheezes and swells. There’s a guttural, scratchy bottom end jabbed by synthy high notes. There’s a tambourine, a snarl of static and a slack-key-like guitar that rises into earshot and then falls away again. Hyper-happy tones grow increasingly frantic and helium-shrill.

The album sails and pitches, its sonorous and smooth moments suddenly colliding with jagged edges, industrial cacophony and roiling monsters of the unfathomable deep. The anxiety-laced “Just Cause” is followed by the darker “Mr. Belmont.” Explosive low notes rumble under Hooker’s gliding falsetto. The track could almost be a James Bond soundtrack B-Side. It’s cinematic and science-fictiony, but the hero seems to be having a bad day — or at least an unfortunate case of vertigo.

“A Day at the Beach,” with its hand claps, snaps and sun-dappled trill, is a welcome interjection. Though also surreal, the song is less haunted, more at ease. This is likely a direction Hooker could easily move in — were he to settle for dulcet tones and placated listeners. There’s a nod to Dent May — to that beachy, kitschy, psychedelic-yet-sweet brand of swoon and sway. “Under the sea were there’s no light no air to breathe / I slowly realized our love can’t be,” Hooker sings. The nightmare is never too far away.

But that’s OK because, as much as the bad dream is uncomfortable, it’s also a source of continual inspiration. Hooker doesn’t shy away from plumbing the depths of each creepy image and disharmony at his disposal. Final track “Go to the Water,” is a rocker at its outset. “Just break those chains / their only in your mind. / Because we’re standing on the precipice of our last life,” Hooker sings. It’s not a warm and fuzzy thought, but it’s a fitting conclusion for this absorbing and imaginative theater of horrors. And wonders. There are plenty of wonders, but Live at The Mothlight would rather thrill, scare, haunt and taunt that be plainly, simply pretty.

Hooker releases Live at The Mothlight appropriately enough at The Mothlight on Saturday, Feb. 27, at 9:30 p.m. VIA and AXNT also perform. $5.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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