Wait. Who is Adam Young? Well, he’s the whiny, somewhat unjustifiably reclusive Owatonna, Minnesotan behind electro pop outfit Owl City.
What is Owl City?
Well, do you remember that CD you bought in the summer of 2009 with that one hit from that one band that you never, ever, ever heard from again? You know — the one with that incessant yet fluffy tune called “Fireflies”? You remember what that was, right? Right.
Good. So now you’ll know why we can blame Mr. Young for the failure of Maryland native Mike Birnbaum’s latest six-song EP, “Spiral Style.” Why? The young Owl City lad was the most recent individual to remind us all that music almost entirely based around a poppy electronic foundation can easily result in a frustrating display of boredom if one doesn’t take the time to experiment with sounds more intricate than a catchy hook.
It’s that idea that plagues Birnbaum (also known as D. Gookin) throughout all of his latest effort, despite a clear desire to try and prove otherwise. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, mind you. Signed to Moodgadget, a pseudo-respectable independent record label aimed at showcasing these exact types of artists, one would think the producer/songwriter was given a proper platform and/or budget to try and craft a release as interesting and innovative as M.I.A.’s “Maya” or even LCD Soundsystem’s recent brilliant swan song, “This Is Happening.”
But much to the dismay of Gookin and his fans, such is not the case with “Spiral Style.” Instead, what we receive is a watered down, bleep-heavy attempt at pop success. And while such an attempt may otherwise be perceived as valiant or respectable, the artist’s lack of imagination forces this release to arrive on the wrong side of good.
That’s not to say all is lost. Sure, “Freak On A Cloud” and “Doesn’t Matter” are two clear attempts at infectious glory that come across as muddled messes. But even so, the hook-y nature of Birnbaum’s writing can indeed make any listener buy into the groovy backbones that lie underneath the sometimes reckless noise the songs tend to veer into. The only problem is that those grooves inherently feel generic and lazy — poppy undertones any music fan has heard time and time again.
The buried vocals don’t help, either. “Way 2 Grow” and “Stealing Sun Chips” could be a lot more interesting if the singer had simply decided to use a better mix. It’s a problem that plagues the entire release. The biggest difference between Gookin and such successful acts as The Postal Service and The XX is that the latter two know how to incorporate decipherable, meaningful lyrics on top of fantastic synth pop-laden music. The Maryland native seemingly has no regard to accomplish such things here and that, in turn, forces his songs to suffer. Why craft bubble-gum hooks if you aren’t willing to fill those out with candy-coated vocal patterns?
Maybe it’s a desire to stay independent. Maybe it could even be an unmovable loyalty to a style Birnbaum feels he can call his own. Then again, it could also be the sound of an artist unwilling to expand or compromise his art simply for the sake of not expanding or compromising his art. And unfortunately, that’s what “Spiral Style” seems to suffer from the most: the stubbornness of an under-evolved songwriter unwilling to dive head-first into the pool of pop music, seemingly satisfied with merely getting his feet wet while sitting on the diving board.
And regardless of how much you may never want to hear “Fireflies” again, at least Adam Young was smart enough to leave that diving board at some point in his short-lived career for the sake of charting a hit. And if Birnbaum’s lucky, by the time he hits the studio again, a couple of his Moodgadget bosses can wipe the dust off their copies of that Owl City album and teach D. Gookin how to swim.
* 1 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 *