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Owen Pallett “Heartland”

Owen Pallett
[Domino Records]

Rating: 9

I still remember when I saw Owen Pallett’s music project Final Fantasy for the first time,  probably because it was one of those moments that changed the way I looked at my own songwriting.  Back in 2004, the show’s bill said Final Fantasy would be opening for Arcade Fire (who were at that time on the verge of taking the world by storm). I expected a band named Final Fantasy to be some artsy Japanese outfit  a la The Boredoms, so you can imagine my surprise when a waft of a Canadian walked out onto the stage with only a violin in hand.  He began playing away on his instrument and right before my eyes his singular violin soon grew into an orchestra.  I would, of course, quickly figure out that he was using a loop pedal to create his enchanting melodies. From that moment on, my own song writing would take on a much more organic approach.

A clip of Owen conjuring up another magic spell:

Arcade Fire went on to put on possibly the best show I’ve ever witnessed, but I still had the little fiddler and his layered music in my head. On the way out of Emo’s I bought his lone CD “Has a Good Home”. I would go on to fall in love with his quirky collection of songs (in a recent interview with TinyMixTapes.com Owen crushed my adoration of “Good Home” saying, “I recorded that album because I was set to go on tour with Arcade Fire but didn’t have anything to sell”).

Over the next few years he made guest appearances on what would go on to be the ultimate indie rock resume (Arcade Fire, Beirut, Jim Guthrie, Patrick Wolf). Eventually he released “He Poos Clouds”, a strange collection of songs about the eight schools of magic in “Dungeons and Dragons”.  On his sophomore effort he seemed to be moving away from his loop pedal gimmick, but overall, the songs lacked the melodies of his first thrown together, paper mache of an album (sorry, still bitter on that one).

This year he brings us “Heartland”, a much more mature collection of songs, completely devoid of both dragons and dungeons (he even went so far as to drop the Final Fantasy moniker due to legal fears with the album being his first released in Japan). “Heartland” is a gargantuan effort, an album produced on such a grand scale that I can’t imagine how Domino Records could fund such a monumental display.

Every song is oozing with a sweeping string section, a verbose collection of horns blasting out triumph and turmoil in the same breath, and the concerto percussion group rattling away with thundering snare rolls that blend naturally with the drum machine hidden behind the timpani drum. There is no question that this isn’t the orchestra I saw Owen create via loop pedal, nor are the oboes and bassoons members of Beirut lending a hand.  The once unassuming one man band has created a monster that D&D fans could only imagine.

Songs like “E is for Estranged” and “Flare Gun” are the type of orchestral fare you might hear in a Meryl Streep film, while offerings like “Red Sun #5” and “The Great Elsewhere” show Pallett meshing the prim with the in-proper as synths and pulsating rhythms bleed into the strings, a symbolic sound that fits with the storyline of the album (more on that later…).  It feels as if the future is looming in the shadows, waiting to pounce upon the chaste and steal away its innocence.

This isn’t an album thrown together for a reunion tour with the Arcade Fire.  This is Owen Pallett stepping up and making his name known.  I hate to make this comparison to my own fault, but there are times where this album is reminiscent of Sufjan Steven’s “Come on Feel the Illinoise”. Not because I’m a Sufjan fan boy, and not because the existence of a clarinet or flute automatically reminds me of Sufjan, but because Owen has created a masterpiece that is so ambitious, so visionary that you can’t help but give it your full attention, much like “Illinoise”.

Despite the overpowering orchestral approach, Owen didn’t ignore the melodies, bringing back that school boy voice and his matter of fact demeanor to the jarring imagery of his lyrics.  Despite all the growth that Owen has gone through musically, within his lyrics you see that the nerdy sci-fi fan still lives on.  According to Pallett, “Heartland” is about Lewis, a demented farmer who realizes that the songwriter Owen Pallett is his creator .  This realization drives him to dementia.  Upon hearing this plot-line, I realized once again my own songwriting had followed the path of Pallett. After hearing Pallett in 2004, I went on to record my own album using only a guitar, banjo, and a loop pedal.  On that album, I wrote a song entitled “Into the Field” about a troubled farmer who goes on to kill his wife and kids because the field told him to do it.  I know it’s a stretch trying to connect my songwriting hobby with Owen Pallett’s genius, but I guess it’s comforting to know I’m not the only weirdo out there writing songs about psychotic farmers.

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