|Album Rating: B+|
A cursory listen of opener “Smut” should tell you all you need to know. Vicky Cryer is less a band and more an X-Men team of rock acts, with former Louis XIV frontman Jason Hill joining together musicians from Muse, The Killers, The Mars Volta, Jamiroquai, and about twenty gazillion other bands from every color in the rock rainbow. Hill’s performance on “Smut” sets the tone for the entire song: he yowls like a cat on Viagra while an anonymous female voice climaxes in the background, the smooth drums resonate with a carnal power, and the guitar shreds everything in its path. The song stops no less than twice before it roars back to life with such ferocity the Energizer Bunny would love to harness. Indulgence is the name of the game here, and to the ensemble’s credit, nobody’s above getting his tuxedo dirty.
The songs on The Synthetic Love Of Emotional Engineering aren’t structured so much as they’re just let loose to roam, making this album a ton of fun: it’s a feast for the ears, full of little improvised doodles and guitar solos out of nowhere. More importantly, the production is excellent throughout, light when it needs to be but unafraid of going incredibly heavy when it needs to. “Touch You” may buzz with the vitality of any first-rate basement indie-rock act, but it has polish to match; meanwhile, the title track integrates the band’s grungier influences into a slower, more romantic atmosphere (say hello to saxophone) and yields surprising emotional returns.
While Vicky Cryer’s approach has a fundamentally visceral charm, occasionally the band runs into the problems that plague most new bands: being stuck in the same character, expanding its approach, and finding a unique viewpoint. The second half, in particular, suffers when a string of weaker tracks throws its pace off. “Expensive Love” goes for gaudy RuPaul-esque euphoria, but the overdone vocals send it up in flames, while “Lady And The Tramp” and “Young Love” are mostly inconsequential interludes (though “Young Love” is fairly winning nonetheless, with a bright, brassy vibe and a pretty gnarly guitar solo in the middle of the track). Hill’s all-or-nothing approach to vocals can be as problematic as it is fun, unfortunately; his yowls, in particular, often take him from character to caricature. The album’s lyrics can be groan-inducing at times (another parallel to its more chivalrous sibling, The 20/20 Experience). Honestly, any album starting with the pick-up line “Baby you’re like a ten-speed / ‘Cause you were born to ride” wasn’t going to be Shakespeare, but sometimes listening to The Synthetic Love Of Emotional Engineering is like listening to the cute but wasted guy hitting you up: as long as you don’t listen to what he’s saying, you can stare at his face and pretend things aren’t getting as uncomfortable as they are.
Luckily (and to carry this metaphor out to its end), the album cleans up its act in the album’s home stretch with two of the album’s finest tracks. “I’ll Take The Pain” is an effortlessly suave groove straight out of the 70s, but Hill takes on a more serious tone here, the verses offering a rare moment of clarity as he sorts out his thoughts behind minimalistic instrumentation while the chorus offers a resolution that’s more out-and-about heroic than you’d expect. The music is just as luscious as before, but there’s a newfound weight to the narrative, and it soars even higher for it. Closer “A Single Cut (Is Worth A Thousand Words),” meanwhile, earns its nine-minute length, slowly building to the album’s heaviest moment: waves of distorted guitar creating a fog around Hill as his vocals break down into harsh, angry buzzes. For an album that’s mostly a jetski ride on the waves, The Synthetic Love Of Emotional Engineering goes surprisingly deep in its final minutes.
Ultimately, though, the image from The Synthetic Love Of Emotional Engineering that sticks the longest is the nude body on the cover staring you down. Initially unsettling, it takes on a different tone: it may take on the sheen of something plastic, but there’s something brave about how it bares itself nonetheless. It’s a fitting summation of Vicky Cryer’s debut, engineered to provoke—and completely sincere in its emotions.
3. Krokodil Tears
4. Touch You
5. The Synthetic Love of Emotional Engineering
6. Expensive Love
7. Lady and the Tramp
8. Young Love
9. I'll Take The Pain
10. A Single Cut (Is Worth A Thousand Words)