AN AMERICAN BAND: There’s a vulnerable pop heartbeat in Fantasy Mirrors’ longer-form dance tracks.
After the Fantasy Mirrors show at Great Scott last Thursday, singer Nathanael Bluhm wasn’t feeling so hot, and since he was already wearing pajamas, I offered him and his bike a lift home. Once we’re there, he cracks open a tin of mackerel and plays me a demo of a new song they had recorded in the middle of the night.
“I think we’re done with short pop songs,” he says, cueing up the rough version of “Quiet Corner.” No, not short: the track he’s playing me is absolute pop, falling in line with the sleek, melo-elegant charm of their old stuff, but unlike that batch of songs, which first got me hooked on Cassette (as Fantasy Mirrors were formerly known), “Quiet Corner” enjoys long spans of unattended groove — sparkling keys, sporadic slap-bass accents, swelling synth mists, and a steady-rocking MPC lobbing a light disco beat. It’s a movement in the making, but what place is there for an eight-minute pop song in a musical culture that’s been diced into ringtones?
Earlier that night, Bluhm was praising the Pet Shop Boys’ 1988 album Introspective (home to such crowd-splitting bangers as their version of “You Were Always on My Mind”) as a triumphant example of that rare speckled bird in the pop forest: the 12-inch singles collection. Lately, the 12-inch single has been the spacious territory of house and techno, and it’s typically a format in service of DJs, not generously crafted pop arcs. Although the new name, sound, membership, and presentation of Fantasy Mirrors bespeak a turn toward longer-form dance tracks, there’s a vulnerable pop heartbeat in there — and when Bluhm sings, you know right where it is.
“I’m not a soul singer, I can’t do all of that crazy stuff,” he tells me. In response to my remark that the new song made me think of Quincy Jones’s early ’80s productions, he had crumpled his nose. But he’s right: though there is something special about his voice that extends beyond proficiency, it’s not soul per se. His baritone is less mopy than Stephin Merritt’s, his croon is more earnest than Rudy Vallee, he’s given to David Bowie’s histrionics, Scott Walker’s poetics, and Iggy Pop’s restraint. (Well, at least those dancier tracks on Blah Blah Blah.) Most important, his voice is hopelessly devoted to melody. Even among the unfinished vistas of “Quiet Corner,” where his syllables are still feeling around for the words they’ll commit to, the melody appears, consolidates, and leads, letting the rest of the song sort out the accommodations. It’s a lilting blend of Sam Prekop and Brian Ferry, softly asserting, “I need to know you know it’s me.”
Shortly after I first met Bluhm, about three years ago, we went swimsuit shopping. Don’t ask. At the time, I considered myself to be nudging a significant personal envelope with the racy, square-cut lace-up Rock Hudson dealie I had picked out. Then Bluhm busted out from behind a curtain in a tiny lycra version of the American flag. “This will be good for shows,” he said, turning in the full-length mirror. “Lately, I can’t stop thinking: we’re an American band. I even say it at practice. We’re an American band.”
Then I was concerned he might be going on some serious Grand Funk Railroad kick. Now I believe he was simply authorizing himself to take some risks with electropop, a genre that tends to be more provocateur than pioneer, and where abandon often gets stuck in a loop. Liberating pop from laziness just sounds American, so he made a good point with that swimsuit purchase. He took to opening every show with the national anthem and ending it in nothing but the stars and stripes.
On the surface, the Mirrors’ songs recall familiar names like Soft Cell, Pet Shop Boys, and Giorgio Moroder — but there’s a bit more compositional adventure here. The elegant chord changes and catchy 13-bar choruses are conspicuous enough, and Bluhm’s lyrics are a lot more engaging than what you usually get in the clubs — you can even make out what he’s singing. But it’s in the newly cemented membership of the band — originally a duo as Cassette — that the music has taken full form.
Founding Cassette member Michael Potvin’s approach to synth-pop has never been standard issue. Potvin’s facility with filters, the waves that fly through them, and pretty much anything controlled by a knob has always ensured that there’s something live happening — even in the band’s two-piece days, when the risk of karaoke was high. He’s the producer of the crew, so his role with sound is curatorial, and he’s not afraid to get a little chaotic and dirty, often in artfully harsh relief with Bluhm’s sure croon. Keyboardist Joseph Wawrzyn (of the Westward Trail) lays out soft sheets of sound and tosses on little melodic sequins. And it’s hard to convey just how much Patrick Dole’s bass has sweetened the deal, a hybrid of smooth R&B and smoother disco that makes me think of Sade, though I know Bluhm would smack me for saying so.