Whenever there’s a story behind an album, you bet that the press will latch onto it. Problem is, then the critics take that story and run with it, and superimpose the band’s own narrative whim over their own. Radiation City want to tell you that they’ve picked themselves up from the brink of disaster, that Cameron Spies and Lizzy Ellison suddenly met up and wrote lotsa 'urgent, semi-spontaneous' songs together, saved their relationship, and steered the band into a bold new horizon. Well, okay, that makes swell PR copy. And I don’t doubt that this life-changing meeting occurred. But however urgent those first takes may have been, the final Synesthetica is about as off-the-cuff as a Coldplay single. By trading in cerebral experience for flashy sound effects, Radiation City alienate themselves from time and space, couching the genres they steal in a echo chamber where pleasure reigns over all.
True, it’s a new direction. The tiptoeing guitars that so recalled the Beach Boys have been (mostly) wiped clean, and the kitchen counters underneath gleam with the day-glo hues of funk without the swag, discos without the style, psychedelia without the drugs. It’s a familiar fusion, one that the likes of Foster the People and MGMT have ran with at some point. You can almost taste the novelty flavor of 'Pumped Up Kicks' in 'Sugar Broom', the kind of kink for the sake of kinkiness that draws college radio stations like deer to a vegetable garden. Except the former had a perverse appeal to it, like murder was being snuck on pop radio. The latter carries nothing but a tune.
Ironic, anyway, that one of the most substantial tunes on here, 'Separate', sounds most like the old collegiate surf of old. But not quite, as a woozy synth line strings together a split narrative between, hmm, two lovers who have just broke up. The dual song thing is clever, and Spies and Ellison seem to be trying to convey something resembling strife – that is, if your life revolves around holding hands with your beloved heterosexual mate on the beach, and strife entails that said mate shoving off to do something else.
One thing’s clear, at least – Radiation City can groove now. 'Oil Show' proves that from the get-go, wedding the soft funk bassline and abrupt guitar slashes with Ellison’s lilting voice. Their most irresistible track, 'Milky White', casts one further back to the likes of The Alan Parsons Project or the Blue Oyster Cult, with the beefy riffs buoyed by faux-organs and cucumber cool synth bleeps. Even the sultry, Goldfrapp-ish 'Butter' has its own suave pulse to it. The duo offer no real contrast to this perpetual glamor apart from “Fancy Cherries”, an afterthought of a Cocteau Twins imitation.
There’s also this forced smile about Synesthetica, like the whole range of human emotion and experience has been boiled down since, y’know, it’s just indie pop. As much as Radiation City try to sound peculiar with the odd skip or beat, the stereo-friendly 'Come and Go' offers one of the only head-scratching lyrics in the whole album: ”this isn’t the bedroom, so take off your clothes”. Wait. Is her fear of sex tangled with his desire? They could have built a real mystery here, but the happy folk bury it under their cheery musings of coming and going.
And god, why do I have to keep listening to 'Futures' to explain it? AAAAH, that refrain goes down like a gob of buttercream: "You came, you saw, the VIDEO! / the VIDEO! / of when you were really small / really small ". I’m trying to figure out if there’s some context here that I’m not seeing, but there’s only words like the walk-in cliché "summers were happy / when you were easy". There is no double-meaning, just the lazy join of time-tested phrases.
Soooooo yeah. Way to go, Radiation City. Like your mindless ilk STRFCKR and Foxygen, you’ve shut themselves in from all the world’s ills, looking instead to an idyllic past. You think you’ve made a monarchy for yourself, but Synesthetica only adds up to a skinny, funhouse mirror in which you prance and rejoice over your own distorted image.
4Lee Adcock's Score