What worked about AM’s Our Future Sons and Daughters was the singer-songwriter’s clever and seemingly effortless incorporation of world music influences into his brand of otherwise straightforward Shins-pop. So a collaboration with Shawn Lee, a multi-instrumentalist best known for a strong Latin music aesthetic and whose Ping Pong Orchestra released the terrific everything-but-the-kitchen-sink pop record World of Funk earlier this year, seemed natural. It’s a shame, then, that the result of the collaboration between these two talented artists, Celestial Electric, is as ungodly dull as it is.
Swathed in heavy reverb that smothers most of its flourishes of novel instruments and production tricks, Celestial Electric frequently gets mired down in aimless instrumental passages that simply lack the texture or variety to make them even halfway interesting. The electric guitar riff during the bridge of “Winter Sun” includes some impressive runs, but they still can’t compensate for the rest of the song’s comatose arrangement, which suggests music for those who find the Avett Brothers or the Low Anthem too fun. The opening passage of “Callahan” at least has a pulse, but track as a whole, with its digital chirps and swirling synth lines, sounds like it was designed to be a pre-loaded ringtone instead of a standalone song.
The porn-soundtrack groove arrangement of “Jackie Blue” is an exception to the drudgery, drawing the shortcomings on the rest of the album into relief. Though it’s still a bit too on the nose, the hi-hat percussion line and funk-inspired riffs enhance the narrative about a promiscuous woman by matching the song’s form to its content. That it’s one of the set’s lyrically better-written songs (“Making love is like sifting through sand/Ooh, Jackie, it just slips through your hand”) doesn’t hurt either. “Can’t Figure It Out” and “Down the Line” simply don’t offer much variation on the same brand of indie-pop writing or construction that have been overplayed since the soundtrack to Garden State.
What’s most disappointing about Celestial Electric is that it loses what makes both AM and Shawn Lee worth following in the first place. Their diverse set of musical influences don’t shine through here: The distorted electric organ break in “Somebody Like You” hints at something interesting, but even that isn’t so terribly far removed from the sound of Vampire Weekend’s albums. “Promises Are Never Far from Lies” squanders its fantastic title with a rote narrative and a sludgy Bollywood arrangement that recalls Of Montreal’s dire cover of M.I.A.‘s “Jimmy.” Celestial Electric settles into its midtempo shuffle early on and rarely strays from it and doesn’t do enough to command attention when it does. Two guys with the know-how for combining modern pop with exciting, far-reaching musical styles shouldn’t be capable of making something this dreary.