If 2005’s In Case We Die established Architecture in Helsinki as a competent and interesting if not wholly novel indie-pop collective, the Australian, Bruce Willis-approved group’s third album, Places Like This, proves the sextet capable of thoughtful, off-kilter mutation that recalls Of Montreal’s February release, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
The most immediately recognizable change is the prominence of songwriter/vocalist Cameron Bird; unlike on the previous album, he sings lead on every track here. Bird’s nerdy, nasal sing-pout (a la David Byrne/Edwyn Collins/Fred Schneider/et al.) unequivocally retunes the band’s erstwhile breezy pop to its jagged frequency. Swooshing synths, busy rhythms, call-and-response vocals and (as despicable the term is) beat-boxing swim together in a reassuringly accessible soup, like the band members smashed a Tom Tom Club twelve-inch over their synth pads.
The album’s strongest track, “Hold Music,” which most fully incorporates the chaotic freak rhythm, is the band’s approximation of Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House,” complete with jittery guitar polyrhythm and flashy explosions of musique concrete (synth lasers and bomb sounds). Elsewhere, “Feather in a Baseball Cap” spikes pensive synth-pop with Pop Group punk-funk guitar flash, and “Same Old Innocence” retools Human League as electroclash.
Although most of the tracks feature fine but inscrutable lyrics, Bird is at his best when he’s working out his neuroses. “Like It or Not” shuffles forward on an elaboration of the primordial I/IV/V “Louie, Louie” guitar strum while a stammering Bird attunes his gag reflex to his mom’s adoration of his girlfriend: “I’ll tell you anything but not the truth/ My mom thinks she’s in love with you and I’m not.”
Some might argue that Places Like This, with its half-hour run-time and throwaway quality, is a bit slight — simply post-punk beat re-imagined as whimsical pop. But its modesty is also its key charm. If the album sounds simple, it’s because it is simple; it’s the attitude, idiosyncrasies and Architecture in Helsinki’s refusal to fall into the fey trappings of paint-by-numbers indie pop that make it such a distinguishing treat.