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Pom Poko: Cheater

The title track that opens the Norwegian art-rock quartet Pom Poko’s Cheater comes flying in with a gnarly guitar and a simple but complex beat driving the track. It doesn’t take long for Ragnhild Fangel’s vocals – a distinctive falsetto – to cut through the top of the mix, dominating the track with a deceptively sweet hookiness. The conventional portion of the song is catchy and fine, as far as it goes, but when the band breaks down together in heavy half-tempo their prodigious talents are on full display. A guitar freak-out duels with Fangel’s soaring vocals toward the end of the track in a thrilling synthesis of sweet and sour. The song is, suitably, a microcosm of what is both exciting and frustrating about Cheater.

Across the album, Pom Poko throw around interesting figures and ideas, but the short nature of most tracks – the album is only 33 minutes – rarely lets the more interesting passages unfold. “Like a Lady” is like a lost Pavement track featuring Natalie Merchant – if you discount the math-y guitar figures. “Andrew” bounces along pleasantly and shows off the band’s considerable rhythmic chops, but never quite goes off the rails into the unexpected. “My Candidacy” has a latent punk energy that keeps the middle portion of the record from sagging. Some tracks, like “Look,” bring in some much-needed grit and grime to the band’s sound – the contrast drawn between the heavy distortion and Fengel’s crystalline voice is one of the band’s greatest strengths.

Structurally, the songs on Cheater are, more often than not, pop songs. The lyrics are the most obviously pop-centric aspect of the band, often trafficking in nebulous phrases like “dream on,” riding the line between sentiment and sentimental. Occasionally a bit of surreal imagery or juxtaposition hints at something more interesting. But even if the lyrics lack the primal strangeness Pom Poko show hints of elsewhere, their undeniable knack for catchy melodies is able to sell even the thinnest lyrical passages on the album.

It’s in the live footage available on YouTube that the band really comes alive, though. Fangel is a powerful vocalist, feeding off the boundless, chaotic energy of the instrumentalists. That spirit is almost entirely absent on Cheater. Pom Poko wouldn’t be the first group to lose something intangible when they go into the studio, but the mix isn’t doing them any favors. There’s no space around Fangel’s singing – making her voice sound brittle and thin when that’s clearly not the case. As for the instrumentation, it’s often too fluid. The bass and guitar melt into each other and neither the subtleties of the percussion or the bombast are captured. And while, live, they might let songs unfold – augmented with extended noise – over seven or eight minutes, forming a feedback loop between band and audience, none of the songs on Cheater cracks the four-minute mark.

At times, Cheater achieves what was so exciting about the early years of a band like Dirty Projectors – a melody bubbling up from the high weirdness only to be subsumed by some new, even stranger, motif – but once Pom Poko finds a hook, they tend to stick with it, reverting to well-worn pop forms. This softens the edges of their more obtuse – and interesting – ideas when those same angles ought to be razor-sharp. As the record goes on, the relatively straightforward structures of the songs grow repetitive, and what at first sounded like wildness by the end sounds like a median indie rock record released any time post-Is This It.

The Studio Ghibli film – directed by the too-often overlooked Isao Takahata – from which the band takes its name has loads of the charm and delight typical of many of the animation studio’s movies and as such serves as a useful touchstone for the band’s aesthetic aims. But the film also revolves around a group of mischievous raccoon dogs with comically large scrotums. In an especially memorable scene, the animals use these anatomical wonders to beat up on riot cops. One wishes Pom Poko the band exhibited the same playful “bad taste” as their namesake by throwing their weight around a bit more on record – figuratively, of course.

As the record goes on, the relatively straightforward structures of the songs grow repetitive, and what at first sounded like wildness by the end sounds like a median indie rock record released any time post-Is This It.
55 %
Too much sugar

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