Electric Hawaii – Opossom

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POP is a large three-letter word. It packs a wallop in the music writing world. The use of the word is usually fairly broad or downright incorrect when thrown around describing the latest streaming blogosphere buzz-about. Joe Carducci in his book, Rock and the Pop Narcotic, makes an argument for Rock as an “artistic form” and Pop music as a marketing concept. While I agree with this point of view as Carducci argues it, I've come to regard Pop as equally “artistic” as Rock, but the style carries different core values as well as a difficult history to escape.

Pop relies on production value more than Rock. Both can be lo-fi or hi-fi, but Rock almost never approaches greatness with overly fussy studio work (before crossing over into the realm of Pop), while Pop can be as ornate as it wants, reaching the soul of the listener with verse-chorus-verse banalities, riding high on soaring melodies and crafty instrumental flourishes. Pop is music meant to be digested less than four minute chunks, while Rock can lasso a groove for ten minutes or more as long as it “rocks.”

Which brings us to the review at hand. Opossom is the one man band (though now a live group has formed around the name) moniker of Kody Nielson. Nielson's former band from New Zealand by way of Portland, OR (now back to Auckland), The Mint Chicks, were a punky-poppy noise machine, but Opossom is a different feral critter altogether. Like his brother Ruban's Unknown Mortal Orchestra, the punk edges have been worn away to reveal a devotion to Pop.

Opossom's debut album is titled Electric Hawaii and for a thirty minute debut it isn't a bad listen, if a little dull in spots. The overly textural vocals grate by the midway point unfortunately. Nielson's reliance on tech tricks like auto-tune (could be hip vocoder gone astray) when paired with reverb, can't carry the often well-written melodies. The first half of the album is particularly tough as the sequence of tracks miss the mark of “bravo!” by quite a bit. Only the opening tune, “Girl,” is wholly successful. Its Motown meets Elephant 6 vibe is ear catching. The melody is a little too similar to “Do You Wanna Dance” in the chorus, but that is a slight criticism of course as there are only so many notes out there for the Pop stylist to play with.

What goes wrong on the three songs that follow, “Fly” through lead off single “Getaway Tonight,” is more lack of variation than anything specifically to do with the songs themselves. Nielson's doing it all here himself which for me personally is always a sign of musical talent, but lack of outside opinion and/or editing shows in the keyboard and beat heavy arrangements. My guess is that once the live band gets ahold of these tunes, magic will happen. Then a second record will be head and shoulders above this one, unless of course the whole enterprise goes shithouse and there is no second album.

“Watchful Eye” updates Miles Davis' “All Blues” chord changes for the smartphone generation and works completely. As does “Why Why,” the best song on the set. It features slippery guitar harmonics and big vocal dynamics shouting out the title phrase. The song's explosions remind me of 60s era garage rock 45s. Find this song because it points to the talent of Nielson. Excellent and simple at the same time.

The final three cuts begin to explore some aural grounds, but they don't hold up on repeat listens. The title tune in particular is a keyboard chord riff that goes absolutely nowhere for a minute and a half. “Outer Space” has some nice electric guitar work, but not much else and the final song, “Inhaler Song,” is the sound of the home studio tinkerer listening to far too much of The Soft Bulletin. Dreadful.

Opossom's album is one of those oh-so close listening experiences. This would have made for a fairly great introduction EP announcing a new artist, but as it stands now, it's bloated on sugary treats instead of rich with vitamins. The good songs on the record will delight a great many people and when the band hits the stage they will develop into a machine I'm sure. Let's wait for Opossom II: Electric Boogaloo before we write Kody Nielson off completely.