What is and what might never be for Montreal’s young indie electronic/witch house duo Purity Ring had me drafting of their “contradictory, contemporary” nature and their “fraught, nubilous catchiness” upon my first listen. After a half-dozen spins, the pleased-to-meet-you plaudits remain only aspirationally correct. Shrines lands as an ironic genre-hashtag Rorschach test. Hermetically content with a dichotomy of current ‘urban’ post-underground sonic signifiers and art-damaged romantic dysphoria, the LP plays at depth and synthesis while making do with simply reproducing indie electro-pop tropes. For all of Shrines’ narrow explorations of trap music, cloud rap distortions, and slow-tick dubstep anthems, I’m left feeling like I just passed an hour with a band that weaned on Postal Service outtakes. Catchy? Yes. Concerned with synthesis beyond reverb-leavened juxtaposition? Perhaps not.
Propelled by the reception to last year’s self-released digital single, “Ungirthed,” vocalist Megan James and producer Corin Roddick’s debut album ultimately suffers a nagging impression of hastiness. In a burgeoning Montreal scene of high-achievers (like 4AD coworker Grimes) and auteurs in training (D’Eon), Purity Ring parlay their 1980s radio-friendly synths to lyrically droll and personal ends. But there’s a homogeneity and a commercial appeal that feels— well, aware of The Knife’s 2006 deal with Sony. You can sense the novitiate comforts and ease of their presumably software-exclusive songwriting environment nipping at the buds of possibility. Presets presage pabulum. James’ alien twee consciousness just exists in this sound, unlike, say, Karin Anderrson, who seems to feed and siphon off her brother’s room-filling simplicity.
And it’s well evident that James is the sell on Shrines. An even-handed and unprovocative vocalist, James compensates by lavishing witch house motifs with a pinch of poetic affectation (and designing the duo’s couture). A fey wisp of childlike candor and perversity, she sits atop the mix awash in digital reverb de mode, auto-tuned to limn skipping hooks. Odd hooks at that: Saltkin demands, “There’s a cult inside of me/ Form a salt sprinkle it around me,” while Fineshrine entreats, “Cut open my sternum/ And pull my little ribs around you.” The sentiments are arresting, occasionally discomfiting, and usually trying a bit too hard to be novel: “impedious pounding ideas” formed in “candented dawn,” perhaps. Naïve, dryadic, and composition notebook cute, it might be best to write the neologisms off as odes to Elizabeth Fraser’s glorious babble in later Cocteau Twins and leave it at that.
Partner Roddick meets the Bat for Lashes-esque saturation with a straightforward palette. New-wave keys (think OMD & Gary Numan), detuned rhythmic vocal snippets, well-worn 808 kicks ’n’ claps, and sleepy half-speed arrangements. Arrangements that wobble and pulse with a constant mechanical lurch due to a damnable bugbear of techhead message-board jargon: side-chain compression. Shrines’ 11 tracks are maddeningly of a piece due to said process. For one track at a time or through an EP of material, this sound would stand out and maybe meet James’ reaching identity. It’s akin to the Michael Bay-patented and now ubiquitous sound-field vacuum bass-drop that confirms that, yes, you are indeed watching a theatrical trailer for an action blockbuster in a THX environment. For an example of effectively conservative implementation of this effect, listen to avant-synth pop diva iamamiwhoami’s “Idle Talk.” The pitch-pinching “breathing” effect that accompanies almost every kick drum hit gets old here. Fast. And its lurching is almost painful for headphone listening.
I’d like to see Roddick’s distortions confirm James’ otherness in some heady, technologically mediated corporeality and sexuality: sonic warping begetting further distortion, like Cronenberg hijacking romantic conceits through Lewis Carroll. But the lack of intra-song development fails to sell me on the uniqueness of the attempt. We’re left with what might be stabs at commercial solvency, unsentimental moorings for the nascent strangeness of James. Closer “Shuck” might very explicitly point the way forward, eschewing the beat altogether for an isolation that reminds me of the twee pop of San Francisco’s unheralded and very odd Aisler’s Set. This is a very young group, and if they don’t love the sounds they’re imitating, shuck the soundbanks, strip down the mix, and let your vocalist dabble in the weird 90s. And maybe write some postcards to Phil Elverum.