It’s becoming common parlance to refer to any band with more than four or five members as a “collective,” but multi-instrumentalist David Sztanke asks you not tack this moniker onto his seven-member group Tahiti Boy and the Palmtree Family. And after listening to Good Children Go To Heaven, it’s easy to understand why. But the output of the band — however quirky and surreal — seems like a unified vision. Sztanke has settled comfortably into the director’s chair, painting an inventive — if sometimes overly ambitious — picture of where he wants to take the band.
Tahiti Boy and the Palmtree Family’s music is frequently called “psychedelic,” which seems apt enough, given the intricate orchestral interplay that characterizes just about every track on Heaven. Sztanke also has a strong propensity for time-signature changes, and the video for album opener “1973” is worthy of The Electric Company, vintage Sesame Street, or any other show trafficking in neon-colored puppets. Yet Sztanke’s “psychedelia” lacks the unhinged quality that often accompanies this tag. Blame it on his Julliard training, but the man has an ear for composition and prefers to wrap his genre-bending weirdness into neat packages.
Wisely, Tahiti Boy and the Palmtree Family ease us in with “1973,” the album’s strongest track, which expertly captures the feel of classic French pop, pushing a lot of nostalgia buttons while simultaneously sounding fresh and modern. Listener hooked, the musicians flex their muscles a bit, exploring more experimental sounds as the album progresses. Chaser “That Song,” featuring TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, scarcely sounds like the same band; it crawls along to chord progressions reminiscent of Grizzly Bear. “Time” is another especially accomplished effort, beginning with a stuttering interplay between banjo and flute, overlaid with a bluesy melody and punctuated by jazz breakdowns. By the song’s end, the whole affair has turned into something of a sing-along, complete with campfire harmonies. The transitions between “movements” aren’t altogether smooth, seeming too intent on cramming disparate elements together; yet the overall effect works, making it easier to overlook the bumpy segues.
“Who Knows” features similar thematic transitions, ones that continually mutate the song in a sophisticated, interesting way. Initially, a tight-knit net of strings lulls and soothes, before piano forces an abrupt mood change, injecting some bounce into the song. It’s not entirely cohesive, but a beautiful melody goes a long way toward tying these themes together. The mood swings feel natural, following a path similar to expository songs in musicals, or a film soundtrack.
That being said, it’s unsurprising to learn that Sztanke is currently working on a soundtrack for Claude Zidi Jr.’s film Fashion Week. This should be an excellent use of Sztanke’s brand of composition chops, since his gift for pacing and propensity for lush, cascading sound makes Heaven seem like a film soundtrack at times. Some of this feel can also be attributed to the album’s careful pacing and attention to track order. It’s a welcome, refreshing touch in an age where the track stands alone, as consuming entire albums becomes increasingly rare.