OWEN PALLETT – Heartland (2010)

Musical evolution is an interesting thing to behold. Owen Pallett’s earlier work (released under the name “Final Fantasy”, a moniker he is wisely abandoning, as Heartland will be his first album released in Japan, and the confusion/possible litigation of releasing an album there as “Final Fantasy” is something I’d rather not ponder here) moved mountains with little more than a violin and a loop pedal. This palette-minimalism (no pun intended) works for many reasons, not the least of which is Pallett’s unyielding determination to make the most out of such constraints – it’s kind of amazing that a song like The CN Tower Belongs To The Dead (from his 2005 debut, Final Fantasy Has A Good Home) can carry the kind of intensity it does with so few elements in its makeup. It just goes to show that honesty (I’m not talking about personal honesty here, I’m talking about an artist’s complete and total commitment to their idiom) in music can sometimes go a lot farther than a production credit by Rick Rubin.

So yes, the early Final Fantasy/Owen Pallett albums were charming and whimsical, but they were also small and simple. Heartland is not. It’s Pallett’s biggest album, in more ways than one. It’s his first release for Domino, it’s the longest record he’s released thus far, and the amount of layers packed into each song has increased drastically. But it isn’t just that there are more layers here – it’s that the layers themselves are more intricate. Listen to the electronic flourishes that pepper the beginning of The Great Elsewhere, the woodwind/horn tug of war that crests and wanes in Lewis Takes Off His Shirt. Or the way he slyly turns his violin from a hushed, panicked quiver to a regal waltz melody in E Is For Estranged (and how the song becomes one, in turn). Pallett’s clearly swinging for the fences here, and you can feel it – there’s a depth to the songs on Heartland that his music has never exhibited up to now.

Somehow, Pallet’s quirky humor manages to cut through these songs. His self-referential asides are still at work here – the song Keep The Dog Quiet makes quite a few nods to The Arcade Fire, the Montreal-based indie superstars whom Pallett has arranged strings for in the past (if you don’t believe me, just listen for the song’s opening lyric). And his playfulness is still intact, too – it’s hard not to smile when he talks of wrestling in The Great Elsewhere, or when he launches into a stream-of-consciousness segue about…well, lot’s of things (farms! satisfaction!) in Oh Heartland, Up Yours!. All in all, Pallett didn’t seem to sacrifice any aspect of his sound in creating Heartland – he’s merely upped the ante on everything.

Much like Bromst did for Dan Deacon last year, Heartland is special for the way it emphasizes qualities about an artist that we knew the artist had, but qualities that we maybe didn’t appreciate as much as perhaps we could’ve. Heartland is great album, and I can’t think of a better way to kick off 2010 than by giving it a listen.

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