It’s not supposed to be this way. Indie pop should be easy to follow. Frequent time signature changes should equate to joylessness. And by god, if you insist on using hocket and polyphony in your vocal lines, please ensure that you are a respected early music ensemble (or a prog rock band pretending to be one, a la Gentle Giant). Shame on you, Hi Red Center, for brazenly defying each of the above musical standards.
All of the rules broken and lines blurred by New York’s Hi Red Center on their debut album, Architectural Failures (2006), remain broken and blurred on the follow-up, Assemble. This isn’t an album about flouting conventions, though. If anything, Hi Red Center’s lovingly detailed, often plain, beautiful songs approach an awkward kind of, well, approachability. They just get there in the strangest ways. Melodies refract, arrangements self-destruct and congeal.
Assemble’s strangest concoctions successfully goad the proverbial square peg and round hole to commingle — for example, the combination of skronky Beefheart un-blues with hazy melodicism in “Nowheresville,” or the wisps of Tejano and Brazilian rhythms that interrupt the acid-pop reverie of “Los Olvidados.” A few listens through Assemble and its peculiarity recedes. The shards of glockenspiel, clarinet and bassoon that teeter-totter through “Symmetry Chameleon” and “Pipe Dream” register with the same lushness that marks Sufjan Stevens’s most ebullient tracks — albeit smashed and glued-together.
There is a whole lot of room for pretense in a record of such calculated construction, and perhaps the most wondrous thing about Assemble is that Hi Red Center sidestep it completely. Parts ping-pong and interlock gleefully, voices intone with a sense of discovery, even reverence — there’s a little bit of the sacred inside the breathtaking “Lullaby.” Music this complicated isn’t usually so unassuming, so human.