For obvious reasons, the preferred aesthetic of Toronto/New York/Los Angeles-based band Metric--an angular brand of Arts and Crafts indie rock that always seems stadium ready--and the constructed musical persona of lead singer/songwriter Emily Haines are practically one in the same. As a lead singer, Haines has always embodied the guise of an overconfident (read: insecure) femme fatale: insouciant, cold, occasionally blunt, edges sharpened to a point, but undeniably beautiful. She’s played this role on film (in Julian Plenti’s “Games for Days” video) and inspired characters in print (Bryan Lee O’Malley admitted the inspiration for rocker Envy Adams in his Scott Pilgrim series was Haines), and when Metric is firing on all cylinders-- like they did on their unusually strong 2009 release Fantasies-- it’s Haines who’s leaving the bite marks.
Driven by her honest, casually reckless songwriting, the group’s best moments arrive when they kick whimsy to the curb and weaponize the spacey grandeur of their Broken Social Scene brethren. Tracks like the monstrous “Stadium Love” or the churning, sexy “Black Sheep” turn the wide screen melodrama of Stars and Feist (both BSS affiliates with Haines) into an exploitative pulp flick, all red lipstick, cigarettes, and dead bodies.
It is, of course, a let down when the group’s latest effort, Synthetica, sands down the more interesting edges of Metric’s sound (the occasional in the red guitars, Haines’ more sneering songwriting) for a reliably slick, if not slight and uneven, batch of synth-driven indie rockers that indulge in some of that famous Arts + Crafts sentimentality to boot. The high points of Fantasies are for the most part absent (the aforementioned “Stadium Love” and the opener “Help I’m Alive”) and the track list is littered with songs that seem underdeveloped (the bland, top 40-esque “The Void”), unfocused (the churning Muse-lite prog track “Youth Without Youth”) or downright irritating (the inexplicable playground wilt of “Lost Kitten”).
But Metric/Haines still manage to calibrate a handful of tracks that play perfectly to the group’s strengths. The arena sized, cloudy synth splash of “Artificial Nocturne” opens Synthetica with Haines sketching out a gorgeous, self-aware refusal for the night to end: “I’m just as fucked up as they say/I can’t fake the daytime/I found an entrance to escape into the dark.” “The Wanderlust” is just tightly a coiled slice of indie pop bliss with a fantastic call and response chorus (with Lou Reed, no less), and Synthetica’s almost percussion-less centerpiece “Dreams So Real,” like “Nocturne” floats on a central, amorphous synth line and builds to an relatively anticlimactic apex, but doesn’t feel underwhelming. “Dreams” has the benefit of being anchored with Haines’ best lyrics on the album (“Thought I made a stand/only made a scene”), detailing an ambiguous illusion of self-righteous passion that only ends in wasted breath: “I’ll shut up and carry on/The scream becomes a yawn.”
Even with the highlights, there remains a feeling of paralysis on Synthetica that’s reflected in the uneven tracklist. Haines, and in turn Metric, can’t afford to phone-in their trademark, high drama sound, or else the intrigue and sexy danger of their best efforts turns catty and disinterested. When Haines stays dialed in, and keeps her audience hungry to chase her through the back alleys of some noirish dream world, Metric can’t miss.
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