The last decade and a half has chronicled rock ‘n’ roll’s anxious attempts to win back the favors of electronic music after Seattle told it exactly where to stick its synthesizers back in 1991. Yes, we’ve come a long way from the awkward, fumbling advances that made up the latter half of Mellon Collie, disc two. From Wolf Parade’s wall of synth to The Knife’s eerie death-disco to Xiu Xiu’s harrowing noise-pop, the aughts were all but dominated by the sticky-sweet sounds of rock and electronic’s make-up sex. While I’d be exaggerating if I said that the walls between genres have been completely torn down, I think it’s fair to assert that they are at least more permeable.
Been Meaning to Tell You is as fitting an example of this kind of cross-pollination as you could hope to find. It is unmistakably an album to file in the “electronic” bin: the digital sound-effect loops, the predominance of 4/4 rhythms, and the mostly wordless compositions make that classification indisputable. Yet analog instruments — or, at least, the sounds of analogue instruments — make up the backbone of these songs, and even without any lyrics, they fall into something resembling a familiar verse-chorus pattern typical of rock. Ernest Gonzalez, veteran DJ (under the moniker Theory of Everything) and founder of Exponential Records, has crafted a rather charming record here. The rock instrumentation undergirding the melodies gives the songs a very human quality, while the electronic elements create a warm atmosphere of pops, buzzes, and twitters to support it. So why is it that, by the time “Upon the 49th Day” winds gently to its conclusion, I feel like I just finished listening to the soundtrack to the world’s longest car commercial?
You see, the same qualities that make Been Meaning to Tell You so approachable ultimately work against it. Taken on its own, each song is a pleasant and immediately appealing listening experience. Yet beneath the glitchy bounce of “Falling Asleep to the Glow of the Television” or the somber, synthetic hum of “Self Awakening,” there isn’t a tremendous amount of depth. All the melodic elements sit comfortably right where they’re supposed to, and while that might sound like a ringing endorsement on paper, it results in a record disappointingly devoid of surprises. There are no darker moments to complicate or give contrast to the pervasive good cheer, and no song seems able to break free of the mid-tempo malaise that becomes fatal by the album’s midpoint.
Gonzalez clearly has a gift for crafting attractive melodies that seamlessly blend digital and analog instrumentation, but in the year 2010, this is almost par for the course. Even the sunniest of good-time albums needs a source of tension, but Gonzalez has provided nothing more than a stream of pleasantry. The resulting album is immediately gratifying, but there’s nothing to keep the listener coming back.