W-H-I-T-E Sunna

[Aagoo / Swill Children; 2010]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: astral pop, ambient
Others: Zola Jesus, Beach House, The Flaming Lips

Okay, start sucking on your Roswell-alien-shaped novelty water pipe: Imagine an axis where one pole is labeled ‘Structure’ and the other is labeled ‘Atmosphere,’ and every album ever made can be plotted along those axes according to the way in which the artist responsible negotiates these two categories of musical expression. If you can imagine also that the making of an album constitutes the construction or reconstruction of a world, subject to all the laws and conditions its maker might design for it, then ‘Atmosphere’ might be more clearly understood as the total of all the timbral elements that together constitute its landscape. ‘Structure,’ on the other hand — a category that might include tonal relationships, melodic development, lyrical content, and even packaging, among other things — could then be understood as a kind of roadmap or guided tour of that landscape; the elements of an album that prescribe a certain route from one landmark to the next, or at least attempt to convey the attitude with which one might best view them.

While nearly every album engages in some sort of compromise between these two basic concerns, artists who favor ‘Atmosphere’ as their primary interest — often those in the realm of ambient, noise, drone, etc. — invite us listeners into the worlds they weave and allow us relatively unlimited access to their flora and fauna, providing an environment to be filled and refilled with nearly infinite personal constructions of meaning. But artists who favor ‘Structure’ — spoken-word could be an extreme example — might do away with the immersive ‘field trip’ altogether, engaging the listener with a guided tour so compelling (hopefully) that we listeners wouldn’t want to experience their subjects through any lens but their own.

W-H-I-T-E’s starry-eyed debut full-length, Sunna, is the sort of album — in no short supply over the last three or four decades of popular music — that aims to attend to both ‘Atmosphere’ (what the accompanying one-sheet refers to as “experimental space sounds”) and ‘Structure’ (“pop melodies”) with an equal share of craft and attention. It’s a tall order for any artist at any stage in their development, demanding not only proficiency with the musical execution of elements from both considerations, but an ability to synthesize them in a way that compounds their respective energies through a tricky fusion that finally produces something greater than the sum of their parts. Considering that Sunna is the first record from W-H-I-T-E (ultimately the solo alias of one Corey Hanson, and an acronym that very unfortunately stands for “White Horses In Technicolor Everywhere”), a fair portion of his synth-centric, drum-machine-driven space program is impressive enough to take notice.

Hanson clearly knows what he’s up to in the aforementioned ‘Atmosphere’ department, and every one of the album’s 15 tracks (the last six on the disc go unlisted on its packaging) feature moments of rich, thoughtful textural arrangement. Washes of towering, interstellar organ give way to bubbling synthesizers that, as if literally relieved of the earth’s gravitational pull, spill weightlessly over drum samples that clang and plod along like archaic alien machinery. On Sunna’s best tracks, when it’s all working together, W-H-I-T-E’s ambitious sonic vistas unravel with a great deal of dynamic range given how effortlessly they drape over his simple song forms.

Hanson’s voice is nothing to sneeze at either, particularly his unassuming but emotive falsetto, which reminds more than a little of The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne. Indeed, songs like lead single “Go On With The Gong” that emphasize Hanson’s vocals — allowing them some front-and-center moments, rather than drenching them in reverb and burying them in the mix — are often his most compelling. “Go On” is probably the album’s crowning jewel; it’s a downright catchy, economical track that, through its developmental patience, reaches breathtaking heights while remaining texturally and melodically concise. Other standouts like “When We Were Young” and “Take Me out to Dinner” similarly benefit when Hanson exercises restraint in rationing his timbral ideas across the duration of each song, allowing them room to individually stretch their legs and really shine.

The album falters most when W-H-I-T-E fails to do so, as those ideas are often required to compensate for his relatively unexciting realization of ‘Structure.’ Hanson never displays much ambition in that realm, dealing mostly in very repetitive, often underdeveloped vocal melodies and chord progressions that, while usually perfectly lovely, don’t seem to warrant the meditations they receive. Nor do they sustain a listener’s interest when he shows his atmospheric hand too soon. As a result, repeated listening can leave some of his tracks feeling one-dimensional and sing-songy — a particularly frustrating shortcoming considering the grand scope of his album-world’s textural offerings. Hanson never really seems to challenge himself with his songwriting, giving us a tour of that world that sells it short by visiting the same few attractions over and over, and delivering what feels like the same well-rehearsed spiel nearly every time. This shallowness betrays the depth of the record’s other elements, and, as a result, Sunna never really sticks to your ribs.

Ultimately, Hanson’s difficulty synthesizing his interests in simple pop and other-worldly atmospherics, in a way that doesn’t compromise either of them, makes it difficult for the album to offer anything as much as it offers notable promise. Although it’s certainly a well-worn, debut-record-review cliché to say so, it seems to be as apt here as it often is: What Sunna suggests for W-H-I-T-E’s future is the most exciting thing about it.

Links: W-H-I-T-E - Aagoo / Swill Children

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