Passion Pit's 2008 EP Chunk of Change galvanized the indie-pop hype machine, largely on the strength of "Sleepyhead," an irresistible lap-pop gem that combined intimate lyrics with syrupy, sampled vocals and a woozy, keyboard-driven chorus. Since then, Passion Pit has undergone some changes. Most notably, the group's debut full length, Manners, is, from start to finish, the product of a full-band collaboration and not just founding member Michael Angelakos. The band even features two keyboardists and a guy on full-time synths-and-samples duty. Which is to say: I hope you like your dance-pop delivered as a whirring, glitchy, buzzing head-rush of electronic sounds, because that's the only way Passion Pit makes it.
The album opens with a distant sample of a ringing bell, and presumably it's the one that announces recess, because within seconds the keys and synths are blaring out of the gates like a gang of grade-schoolers after a Mountain Dew bender. Eventually, the song mellows out with some "woo-woos" and a falsetto lead that's about as understated as Angelakos is capable of—so, not much at all. "Little Secrets" retains the squiggly, beeping stuff, but adds a string section and—why not?—a children's choir. Both cuts stay on just the right side of histrionic, hitting the endorphin center while narrowly avoiding the gag reflex. Props are due to the rhythm section too: Providing the low-end of an electro-pop group might sound like an undervalued station, but bassist Jeff Apruzzesse and drummer Nate Donmoyer lend the tune enough muscle to save it from saccharine excess. Donomoyer's drums pump and clatter beneath Angelakos's helium vocals, rendering his swooning melodies all the more propulsive; Apruzzesse, for his part, adds just the right amount of gravely snarl. The songs' plentiful hooks are every bit as good as they are over-the-top.
Between the guy-diva balladry of "Moth's Wings" and its amped-up antecedent, "The Reeling," Passion Pit crams several decades' worth of party music—disco, house, rave techno, and '80s rock—into eight blissful minutes. After that, the guys tone down the camp, but the consistency doesn't suffer for it. Maybe this owes to Angelakos's days of careful, one-man pop-craft, but the majority of the songs on the album sound deeply thought-out, with all the audio ornamentation hung exactly in place. On less caffeinated cuts (relatively speaking), like "Folds in Your Hands" and the closer "Seaweed Song," the slower pace just provides a better showcase for the group's meticulous attention to detail. And when "Sleepyhead" resurfaces at the album's three-quarter mark, it reminds us how good these guys sound when all of their sugary sounds are combined just right.
Ironically enough for an album called Manners, its biggest problem is that the band sometimes comes on too strong—a risk for anyone trying to execute lush, hyperactive pop with good taste. One such blunder is "Let Your Love Grow Tall," which calls back the kiddie choir for a schlocky finale, and "Eyes as Candles," while musically more interesting, is nearly as cloying. These tracks are unfortunate missteps, because when Angelakos doesn't try so hard to write from the heart, he manages to fix some real emotional heft to his slick pop surfaces. His lyrics are confused and conflicted at least as often as they're gee-whiz-happy, and the balance between the album's optimistic and confessional moments should elevate it above the typical disposable summer-record slums. It just so happens that Passion Pit has released a gorgeous pop album in time for the warm weather, and while Manners would make a perfect soundtrack to any summer, you'll want to keep the best cuts around for far longer.