Think Paul Simon With a Drum Machine
As “Stranger Still,” the lead track on Complete Strangers, begins playing, it’s hard to tell what exactly to expect. The soft synth pad overlain with a heavily filtered guitar loop is the sort of sound instantly associable, with Jony Ive telling listeners about the chamfered bezel of the latest Apple hardware. It takes slightly less than two minutes for the swirling elements of the song to take shape, the end result of which feels like a hybrid of Brian Eno’s minimal work and Rumours era Fleetwood Mac. This is just a taste of what is yet to come on the record. While at times, the listener might not know which direction this record is going, the artist that created it knowing exactly where they are taking the listener.
The songwriting is mature and elegant, partially due to the length of time the recording process took and the decade-plus life span of the band. The strength of the production speaks to the strength of the creative relationship between singer-songwriter Andy Cabic, and his co-producer and engineer, Thom Monahan. There is a harmonious balance between the natural and the synthetic; just enough studio polish to really make the acoustic underpinnings pop.
Cabic has managed to marry a variety of musical flavors to the underlying soft folk feel of his songs. “Current Carry” takes a drum machine loop straight out of “Psycho Killer” and swims around it with a lap steel guitar. “Time Flies” is pure bossa nova. The song is only one smoky voiced Portuguese vocalist away from being something found on an early Brasil ‘66 record.
The only soft spot in the line up is “Edgar.” It doesn’t really go anywhere or do anything particularly interesting. Which isn’t to say it’s bad, just that it’s unremarkable compared to the rest of the album. This record manages to explore a variety of musical terrain all while maintaining a unifying aesthetic that makes the individual songs feel like parts of a unified whole.