Bringing up a discussion of synthesizers is a good way to kill off a few pitchers … and a few friends. Whole philosophies of music-making revolve around the proper way to use (or not use) those motley circuits. There’s just so much to consider. Digital or analog? Alienating or engaging? Homogenizing or democratizing? Mindless button-pushing or the life of the party? Hellcat or DFA?
In fact, the very act of a “rock band” ditching its reliance on guitars, drums and bass to write a few tunes with synthesizers is a story in of itself. To get an idea of the frenzy, look no further than the media circus that surrounded the Postal Service, the synth-heavy side project of Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard. We raise our eyebrows when a group hailed for its down-to-earth emotionality decides to make music with instruments that, though no less arresting, often work to distance the listener from the artist.
What’s so remarkable, then, about Headphones — a trio comprised of David Bazan and Tim Walsh (both of Pedro the Lion) and Frank Lenz — is not that Pedro the Lion primarily makes rock music, but that the intimacy of Bazan and Walsh’s synths-only record makes the questions surrounding these musical categories entirely superficial. Surprisingly, Bazan’s familiar deadpan delivery and no-bullshit lyrical content sound right at home bathed in the warm pastel-glow of chirping analog synthesizers. When we might expect starry-eyed abstraction, we get endearing tunes such as “Shit Talker” and lines such as, “I guess that’s what you get/ for being born in the seventies,” Bazan’s hilarious consolation to his feuding friend. And elsewhere, whether he’s talking girls (“I Never Wanted You,” “Hello Operator”) or talking terrorism (“Major Cities,” “Natural Disaster”), Bazan never strays from his chummy informality. Somehow, that manages to make these measly drum ‘n’ synth workouts a small revelation.
Because the songs refuse to make their musical strictures ends unto themselves, because a good sense of melody can make a bunch of analog synthesizers feel as familiar as your mom’s meatloaf, because Bazan’s lyrics celebrate the commonplace so convincingly, the Headphones manage to sound as real — in fact, as ordinary — as any ol’ rock band. And it is just that unassuming quality that makes the band’s music, however synthetic, so utterly refreshing.