Jimmy Tamborello: Credit Where Credit Is Due

How many diehard synthpop fans do you think live in Canada?  Maybe enough to crowd one Toronto club, plus a few enlightened Inuits and a caribou.  Yet this half-frozen nation has given birth to perhaps the genre’s greatest Myspace-to-riches story in Valerie Poxleitner, known to her friends and fans as Lights.

At least, riches seem certain as she now releases her first LP, The Listening.  The number of plays she enjoys on a daily basis give public approbation to her Juno Award and the various other acclaims she has racked up prior to pressing a record.

Beating The Listening to stores by a full month is Ocean Eyes, the major-label debut of Owl City (nee Adam Young).  Born even further from the equator in the little town of Owatonna, MN, Young has experienced similar popularity and growth in response to self-sustained synthpop efforts.  The two are seen by many as each other’s other-gendered counterpart.

Rumors of varying integrity have labeled Lights and Owl City friends, collaborators, sweethearts, and doppelgangers.  What we know is that their homegrown brand of electronic melodies with softened, bubble-pop percussion and smooth, coasting vocals is catching on with the kids in every neighborhood.

As far as anyone seems to remember, the last softcore electronic artist to break into the mainstream so summa cum laude was The Postal Service.  While their only LP, Give Up, was reported by Sub Pop to be the label’s most successful release since Bleach (it has since been surpassed by Flight of the Conchords), a single supporting tour is all the wake it generated.  Some chatter has ensued, but passing years show further Postal Service tours and recordings to be dreams without wings.

There’s your overview.  Here’s my problem.

Our generation has never had a mainstream affinity for the buzzes and whirs and padsynth drums of adventurous electronic artists.  Naturally, the three crooners – or perhaps cooers – to break through are extensively sized up against each other.  But as adorable as Lights and Owl City are, they are not The Postal Service.

The Postal Service is commonly referred to as a side project of Ben Gibbard, the face of indie wunderband Death Cab for Cutie.  Despite the public’s impression, Gibbard is not Death Cab’s heart, soul, and guiding light.  In particular, guitarist-cum-producer Chris Walla plays a large part in their writing process.  And despite the fact that you hear Gibbard’s crystal pipes on every track of Give Up, it was not a solo effort.  As educated as he is in sonic development, Gibbard does not have the right skill set to take a chisel to a synthesizer and carve out such an wondrously glitchy album.

The first Postal Service song was released two years before Give Up hit the shelves on an album called Life Is Full of Possibilities.  If you’re confused, check Wikipedia, I’ll wait.  Make sure you catch the artist name painted across the ambulance on the cover.  That’s the guy who wrote all the other songs on Life Is Full of Possibilities, so we’ve got good reason to interpolate that Dntel is also responsible for – did you catch it, next to Ben Gibbard’s name? – (This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan.

Dntel is mastermind Jimmy Tamborello, a synthhead who sprang out of California in the early 1990’s.  Under that primary penname and a few others, Tamborello has accrued critical acclaim and a handful of adherents by spinning out imaginative records loaded with electronica candy.  His style is of his own design.

Through a serendipity of geographical coincidence, Gibbard got an invite from Tamborello to lay down vocals over a tune he had crafted.  While Dntel had collaborated with many others before, Gibbard’s cachet with hipsters and the approachable style that later took Death Cab to more widespread fame gave The Dream of Evan and Chan unprecedented motility.  The pair hardly hesitated before plunging into a more extensive tag-team project.

First, Tamborello built a full album of instrumental material from the ground up.  He put the tracks on tapes and shipped them to the great state of Washington, where Gibbard tagged in.  The bespectacled twenty-something was given free rein to reorganize the beats as necessary while he plotted lyrical melodies overtop.  From there, extra hands came into play: significantly, Chris Walla appeared on one of the finalized songs playing piano and handled the whole recording process at his Hall of Justice studio.  Female vocals were courtesy of Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis and little-known indie songstress Jen Wood.

You might glean from the above that Ben Gibbard acted in a greater capacity than any other single contributer to shape Give Up.  I won’t press the issue because it doesn’t matter whether you’re right or wrong.  Tamborello’s brilliant work is central to the spirit and polish of the album and his part in the partnership is chronically downplayed.

Returning to Lights and Owl City, take a test drive on each of their lead singles – Saviour and Fireflies, respectively.  Then play Such Great Heights, the first Postal Service single.  If you focus on the voices, you’ll notice that Adam Young and Ben Gibbard sound remarkably alike, while Valerie Poxleitner manipulates her vox with a touch of artifice.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

If you focus on the electronics underneath, you might come to see why I feel Tamborello dominates the newcomers.  His choice of sounds shows a greater willingness to take chances and a greater depth of experience from chances taken over an inventive career.  Subtly, he employs irregular three-measure phrases throughout Such Great Heights, even overlaying them with standard four-measure phrases in other instruments to create a drawn out polyrhythmic effect.

Dntel provided the fundaments of The Postal Service, and his influence on Give Up is still the element that sets that landmark album apart from young imitators.  Over time, I’m sure Lights and Owl City will grow their talents.  They may exchange their in-your-face rocktronica choruses for more adventuresome techniques, or they may diverge from Dntel-style beats rather than aspiring to them.  But at the moment, there is no comparison.

In closing: The Postal Service was Dntel’s side project.  His idea, his beats, his project.

Dan and Brian from Earn This now have a film review site and podcast:

The Goods: Film Reviews

The Goods: A Film Podcast

Available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, and more.

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