Album Review: Sam Billen's 'Places'

How much you enjoy Sam Billen's new album, Places, will likely depend on your tolerance for sugar. Sure Billen's MO up to this point has often precipitated from his balance of painful sweetness and quirky, assured songcraft, drawing on a bevy of sonic elements to create a sparkling mix of hushed and wistful indie pop. But Places takes Billen's aesthetic to new, well places.

Throughout its ten spectral songs Billen staunchly embraces sentiment and melancholy. That kind of unadulterated openness may turn away listeners, especially when tenderness in music is a hard thing to earn, much less maintain over the length of an album.

As such Places is painfully pretty—nay gorgeous—with an ambient and formless quality, peppered with whispers of sounds like banjos, simple piano, bass trombone and delicate electronic bloops. Does Billen always strike the right (emotional) chord? Not exactly, and for all of Places' sweeping internal drama and nostalgia, there are moments that are cringe-worthy and cheesy. (Maybe it's just my bitter black heart.) But more often than not—despite lyrics that waver from plaintive to cornpone—the album earns its sentiments.

Beginning with abstract noise that drifts into light piano note and pulses with a scattered orchestral sweep, opener “Saltine” sets the tone as Billen draws on the precious image of being sick as a kid (for a knucklehead like me that spent much time in the school's nurses office, the image is particularly stirring and specific) and extrapolates it to larger unease:

Nibbled on saltine / Pulling at my pillow at the seams / There was a talk we had in that car / An anchor back in my childhood.

“An Interface” with its drawn out vocals, chimes and piano plucks recalls something Grizzly Bear could have make early in their career. The title track begins with a pleasing two-minute interlude, replete with light piano and drained horns that throb and swell. Places is full of moments like this—sparse yet ornate instrumental passages that develop into Billen's aching and pleading posturing. My favorite track, the wholly instrumental “Choices,” sounds like something that could have fit on the Beginners soundtrack and serves as a good bridge between the album's halves.

If there are any qualms to be had about the sometimes saccharine lyrical content, Billen sure tries, and often succeeds, to sell his emotions with finely wrought vocal performances and celestial production. In other hands, an album of this nature could be reduced to a blank smear of pleasing noises—something innocuous enough to be the wallpaper music of your favorite coffee shop. But for all its earnestness, intimacy, and sugar-powdered notes, Places is patently sharp and focused.

Below check out the animated video for closer "Secrets of the Universe"

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