no:carrier – Wisdom & Failure
Release Date: April 29, 2014
Record Label: Independent
In the past half a year or so, we’ve see a great influx of female-fronted throwback pop albums. The fall of 2013 brought fantastic records from CHVRCHES and Haim. This year, one of the best albums of the first quarter was from the Jezabels, a record called The Brink that thrived on lush arrangements, soaring arena pop hooks, and the crystal-voiced cries of frontwoman Haley Mary. Now, we have no:carrier, which is absolutely cut from the same cloth of the aforementioned bands. The songs on no:carrier’s new album, a very good full-length called Wisdom & Failure, aren’t as immediately catchy as the best stuff from CHVRCHES, Haim, or the Jezebels, not as instantly memorable as songs like “The Mother We Share” or “Days Are Gone” or “Beat to Beat.” But the arrangements constructed around the melodies are never less than haunting, and they result in a record that burrows deeper and deeper into your consciousness with each listen.
If you listen to any of the bands I discussed in the first paragraph, you know what to expect here: spacious production, commanding female vocals, and songs that wouldn’t sound out of place at 70s or 80s nightclub. Of the bands I named, no:carrier bears the least similarity to Haim, which is also the only group in this bunch that wouldn’t be considered first and foremost as a synth-pop or electro-pop outfit. Synths and electronic elements run rampant on Wisdom & Failure, turning the album into a somewhat disorienting and weightless journey. Sure, it’s easy to point toward Cynthia Wechselberger as the primary driver of the record, thanks to her dramatic and powerful vocal performances. But producer, songwriter, and keyboardist Chris Wirsig absolutely gets his say in things as well, from the blipping synths and pitter-patter drum machines of “Sunset Castle” to the dancefloor pulse of “Let Me Walk Alone,” all the way to the buzz-saw cello sound that kick starts “The Nine Days’ Queen.”
There are a lot of lush, enveloping moments here, so many that it’s almost remarkable just how much sound no:carrier can create despite only being a two-person musical project. With that said, the record isn’t just about computerized maximalism. In fact, one of the finest moments on Wisdom & Failure is “Last Scene,” a sultry, smoky number that splits the difference between Chicago-esque theatricality and Madonna-like smolder. While the song is certainly not raw from a production standpoint, it finds most of its basis in a simplistic and repetitious synthetic organ line and a percussive, finger-snapping jazz beat. A throwback trumpet sound even rolls through the arrangement at the last minute, and while it’s clearly generated by Wirsig’s keyboard, it still gives the song an old-fashioned sensibility that belies its likely vaudeville roots.
If I have two complaints about Wisdom & Failure, they are these: first of all, most of this record is incredibly dark from a musical standpoint. The acidic grooves and shady soundscapes – likely inspired by the band’s stated influences of Depeche Mode and Portishead – create a cool and unique vibe throughout the record, but there’s so much musical gloom here that it can begin to get a bit unwieldy over the course of the record’s 50 minute runtime. An injection of pop sensibilities (as heard on those Jezabels and CHVURCHES records mentioned in the first paragraph) would go a long way toward diversifying no:carrier’s sound and counterbalancing their dystopian darkness. A few songs with brighter hooks would absolutely work here too, especially with a vocalist as skilled as Wechselberger.
Secondly, while Wirsig is an excellent keyboardist and a good producer, I’d prefer that he leave the vocal duties to Wechselberger. The songs where Wirsig takes the mic – either for part of the song (“Thoughts/Shoot the Sky”) or the entirety of it (“Owes You Nothing”) – are the only songs on the album worth skipping. On CHVRCHES’ The Bones of What You Believe, one of the keyboardists grabbed vocal duties from time to time as well, but his songs had a charming M83-esque sweep to them. Wirsig’s songs however, which wrap his voice in My Bloody Valentine levels of fuzz, simply don’t work, and they slow down an album that is otherwise quite solid. Still, those are small complaints for an album that truly constructs its own world, and I can absolutely recommend Wisdom & Failure in spite of them.