Secret Cities’ Backward-Looking Forward-Thinking “Strange Hearts”

Deciphering when an album was made has everything to do with how the album is recorded.  Arguably, one should be able to pinpoint the era of recording based on what technology was available at the time of its creation.  The more technically proficient the album, the more modern the era it was recorded in — think of Les Paul’s multi-tracking, Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” and Pet Sounds’ cacophonic layers.  Think of the invention of cassette tapes and Tascams that allowed closet troubadours to pass out C86 opuses among their friends. A decade later, think of Cher’s foray into auto-tuning, and Girl Talk’s Abelton-enabled war on intellectual property law. Especially evident in Girl Talk’s mash-up experiments and Spector’s Motown fetishism, it’s clear that every recording step forward creates a reverence of an earlier era.

Modern technology continues to push forward towards beyond-pristine vocals and manipulations that make sounds shimmer in a perfection that can never truly exist in real time. Though this march of advancement begs the question —  is technology really a measuring stick of advancement in music (or even aesthetics in general)?  More so now than any previous time, there is an ache for authenticity and the response to this ache is to regress.  Distasteful for Science, yes, but wholly comforting to the audiophile.

Here sits Secret Cities.  Steeped firmly in the present, their new album Strange Hearts was recorded in a concentrated 3-month process sequestered in the basement of a boarded-up bank in their home-state of North Dakota; free from unsolicited A&R advice and superstar producers.

Secret Cities is happy to bathe in the echo and ghostly backup vocals reminiscent of an earlier time, though no era in particular.  In this modern era, where vocals can be pitched perfect, Secret Cities yearn for a time before the word “post production” meant anything.  It’s a rewarding aesthetic, and its’ recording process, purposely and endearingly blighted, makes Strange Hearts work so well  — a sharp record that politely declines to be polished with toggled studio effects.

It’s coming from a place that’s not overtly nostalgic, but consciously avoids refinement.  It’s the sort of nod to yesteryear that indie pop veterans like Saturday Looks Good To Me have always used to great effect.  Other reviews on Strange Hearts casually drop the Shangri-La’s or Brian Wilson but that name-checking only serves to describe their process, not their output.  Secret Cities is a thoroughly modern, self-aware chamber pop band that dodges such easy classification.  Organ, guitar jangle, tambourine, and hand-claps abound as they trade girl/boy songwriting duties to great effect — recalling innumerable other ensembles but mimicking none.

There are vocals on Strange Hearts so rich that they don’t need any artifice. The sound cuts through recoding space reverb so strongly that it easily pierces a mic that sits on the far side of a cavernous fiscal institution basement.  It’s reverse studio expertise — they know what could make their sound crisper and they’re not going to make it that easy on the listener.  It’s a process that makes repeated listening increasingly rewarding.  It’s a confidence in their own organic sensibilities that the hooks in closing ditties like “No Pressure” and “Portland” don’t need any polishing to shine.

Secret Cities — “Love Crime” MP3

Secret Cities play Chicago’s Subterranean on Tuesday, February 22.

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