Mixel Pixel is a tragically overlooked outfit. Beginning in the early 2000’s, Rob Corradetti and company have cranked out a greasy body of Atari-pop that’s managed to span a surprising range of emotions and moods. Behind the Arkanoid samples and retrograde sound-tracking stirs an affinity for melody, a facility of songwriting that erupts out of the ash of old pixels. When the video-game fetishism of albums like Rainbow Panda gave way to the more straightforward but just as camp Contact Kid, the music preserved its impossible hooks, its contorted mobility.
Contact Kid‘s energy shake of Beck’s hip-hop posing and the scruffy folk-pop of Guided by Voices was followed two years later by the questionable Music for Plants. The latter album, touching upon more "classic" genres such as krautrock, new wave, and ’70s hard rock, loses the melodic ease that lofted Mixel Pixel’s earlier material into its own level of atmosphere.
That’s not to say that the band can’t "do serious"; the issue is that, with Music for Plants, the trio tries too hard. The compositions are bogged in grit and "atmosphere" until the hooks, already dumbed down, are lost in the mud. Perhaps this sobriety reflects the band’s attempt to be taken more seriously by those who would write them off as another soulless, chirping indie-dance outfit.
Music for Plants, however, still sounds at heart like a Mixel Pixel album. In a way, it proved to be the denouement and ominous conclusion of the band’s first incarnation. With Let’s Be Friends, the trio has effected a complete metamorphosis. Most immediately, the electronics have been relegated to the realm of pads and textures. The songs are largely driven by thick-veined guitars, whether laying down power chords or soloing on acid. Indeed, the album’s general impression is that of a uniform mudslide through psychedelic rock and ’60s/’70s electric folk — only the drum machines and a handful idiosyncratic flourishes remind us that we’re listening to the same band that came up with the endlessly breathless Rainbow Panda.
At the same time, perhaps in an even more earnest attempt to gain credibility, the hipster sleaze of Corradetti’s vocals is tempered in duet by the sweeter singing of keyboardist and violinist Kaia Wong on nearly every track. Admittedly, the former’s voice in the raw can become grating (especially on Contact Kid). Only now, hearing his voice dumbed down and castrated in musical marriage, does one realize that it was Corradetti’s swaggering alter-ego who allowed him the freedom to write with impunity.
Now, we get songs like "Let’s Be Friends," which jogs in place for three minutes on shapeless legs, a repetitive bit of strings, sludgy guitar, and sprechgesang; "Cats," which diverges from the last song only in the mildly creepy jam for the last minute; and "Great Invention," a Galaxie 500-into-Jefferson Airplane throwback with moments of brilliance between spells of inanity, most notably the coda in which Wong and Corradetti trade off swaggering mantras: "If I’ve got a problem then my problem’s got a problem ’til it’s done."
The folksier pieces tend to fare better, though they don’t succeed in lifting the pall of boredom: "Whatever Happened to One" and "Distant Station" run like Velvet Underground ballads but fail to reach any level of lyrical captivation. Earnestly delivered lines like "The stars tonight are far away/ But in your eyes they seem to stay/ Hey, let’s run away" fall in with the current trend in indie music of expressing maudlin sentiments with total lack of irony, but fail on the most obvious level as artistic expressions (a line honestly written is not automatically beautiful).
Only two songs on the album truly stand out. "Favorite Sweatshirt On" rekindles the electro-jungle romp of Rainbow Panda with its popping electronics and some kind of off-key xylophone (?) that lights the music with a primal and ineffable catchiness — however, although Wong’s vocals leave little room for complaint, I find myself missing the subtle grating of Corradetti’s alter-ego.
"Sinking Feeling," meanwhile, stands as the true bar for Mixel Pixel’s newfangled sound. The love song’s ominous synths, acoustic arpeggios, and needling guitars make the case that the real affair implicates old and new Mixel Pixel, mingling languidly under water. Vocally, Corradetti exudes just enough sleaze and Wong sings with surprising tenderness, an alluringly rare articulation. Herein may lie the trail for a band seeking new territory without abandoning its strengths.
Of course, it’s nice that Mixel Pixel has taken such a risk with Let’s Be Friends — or at least, a different kind of risk. Each song on the album chronicles a maturing love. The boastful come-ons of "Whatever Happened to One," about two druggies shrugging off parental death and divorce, gives way to the confessionalism of "Let’s Be Friends," wherein Wong admits, "My parents didn’t divorce/ when I was five"; Corradetti rejoins, "And mine didn’t actually die/ That was just a lie."
He manages to deflate the bravado that fueled Mixel Pixel’s back catalog and express a more vulnerable, if boring, side: "If I didn’t get struck by lightning would I still be interesting?/ Would you still hold the hand of this non-electric guy?" Perhaps. But listeners don’t have the time or inclination to treat every band as a lover. Only Rob Corradetti and the band members seem concerned that the old Mixel Pixel was "immature," a cheater, an illusionist, a hedonist.