In Brief: The first complete album from this retro-synthpop side project by Jars of Clay frontman Dan Haseltine comes right on the heels of Jars’ Inland, and thanks to its six new songs making good on the promise offered by the six from the His + Hers EP, I’m having a difficult time figuring out which is the better album.
The release of Freaks, the full-length debut album by synthpop outfit The Hawk in Paris, was interestingly timed. After the trio put out the His + Hers EP in 2011 and I proceeded to hear almost nil about them after the fact, I just assumed that lead singer Dan Haseltine, better known for his dayjob fronting Jars of Clay, had simply done it with a few buddies on a lark, and had no long-term plans for the project. With Jars in full swing recording and touring their new album Inland this year, I certainly didn’t expect to see any new Hawk music any time soon. But there it was, six brand-spankin’-new tracks combined with the six I already loved from the EP. One could argue that they had two years to record only half of an album, and that working on it remotely while the three members were each busy with their own separate recording and/or production gigs shouldn’t have been that difficult. Either way, I’m glad to finally have something more than an appetizer from these guys.
The timing is also interesting in the sense of Dan re-establishing his identity as an artist. He admitted to being fairly anxious about how folks would receive the new lyrical direction he had taken Jars of Clay in on Inland, since that record deals with doubt and heartbreak and loneliness and depression more frankly than any Jars album in the past. When The Hawk in Paris had first established itself as a separate musical entity, I figured its synth-soaked, 80s-inspired romantic melodrama was an outlet for thoughts that would have been confusing on a Jars album, especially due to their unflinching takes on relationship problems experienced by everyone from teenagers on up to long-time married folks. While I think Jars of Clay has a smarter fanbase than that of your average “Christian rock” band, I still don’t think a lot of their fans are necessarily up for walking that tightrope without a net. So now that Dan can explore his unfiltered thoughts on such subjects with his main gig, I wondered if he’d still have the need for this separate outlet. I can only assume that, much like Jon Foreman of Switchfoot, the man must have extra songs just pouring out of his brain that need a home somewhere. This at least gets twice as many of them out there for our consumption. Given that he’s been one of my favorite songwriters for nearly two decades, this isn’t a problem in the slightest.
Now since I reviewed the EP two years ago, the exact same recordings of those songs are presented here on Freaks, and my feelings about them have not changed for the most part, those who read my previous review may find a bit of redundancy here. Finally hearing them all in album context makes a slight difference, but I’m not detecting any heavy concept work going on here – these are simply 12 songs put together by three pop music masterminds (the trio includes former Jars member Matt Bronleewe and Jeremy Bose, both names I’ve seen in the production credits of a few beloved albums over the years), who love to play around in the space where synthetic sounds and messy human emotions collide. Song-for-song, this just might be an even more solid collection than the already excellent Inland. It likely won’t do much for those who view Jars of Clay specifically as a “guitar band”, and critics who have grown weary of the nostalgia for decades past and wish indie pop music would just do something new already may wish to pass on it as well. But there are a number of songs, especially in the back half, that go beyond the glittery dancefloor and the eyeshadow-heavy brooding that one might expect, constructing beautifully textured songs out of the mostly computerized elements available. However you slice it, I tend to admire these sorts of musical underdogs, who embrace a genre, oblivious to its contemporary relevance or lack thereof, and make the sort of album that gives the nerdy freak leaning on the wall at the high school dance, with no potential dance partners in sight, someone to commiserate with.
With its slinky bassline and its understated, “too cool for the room” bass licks, this track gets the album off to an unexpected start – it’s still driven by synth and drum programming, but there’s something wryly detached about it that is quite differently from the established personality of the Hawk tracks I’d already heard. At times its bouncy rhythm reminds me of Muse‘s “Uprising”, and of course a number songs on the darker side of synthpop that served as an influence. But it’s too subversive to play as a stadium-sized anthem – this is a theme song of sorts for the kids who don’t care about going with the “in” crowd, and there’s something humorously menacing about how the song promises to have a jarring but hypnotizing effect on the culture around it: “We’ll have you wrapped around our trigger fingers/Queen bee yellow, you’re the skin for our stingers/We’ll make you swoon, make it hurt just a little/We’re the boys and the girls and the freaks in the middle.” That last line might be intended as a call back (or forward?) to “The New Hello”, which I’ll get to in just a few minutes.
2. Beg For Love
Here the Hawk kicks the music up a notch, going into full-on “retro dance club” mode, in one of the most addictive new songs penned for the album. Dan works the lower, grittier end of his voice here, somehow wringing a catchy chorus out of it even though his avoidance of high notes might seem counterintuitive at first. The song sympathizes with a neglected (and possibly abused) lover, someone who is being denied love and affection by the one person she’s entrusted to give her these things more deeply than anyone else could. the song uses a simple metaphor of her wasting away in the winter snow, waiting to be brought in from the cold, while it’s really the man stifling his emotions and denying his own expression of love to her who is freezing and dying on the inside. Superficially, this one has a lot of sonic similarities to “Put Your Arms Around Me” from the EP (which funnily enough, is up next on the album), but it’s definitely a darker song, leading into one that is intentionally more warm and inviting.
3. Put Your Arms Around Me
Some interesting social commentary takes place on one of the more upbeat, danceable tracks that the Hawk has to offer. Jeremy Bose whips up a synth loop that seems to be constantly cycling up, giving the song a sense of constant motion, yet if you listen carefully you’ll notice that it takes a while to build up to a full climax, with the simple but catchy chorus actually showing a bit of restraint at first. This puts the focus on the lyrics, which are all about the social dysfunction of thinking we’re too cool to let ourselves feel anything. It’s not a romantic love song per se; more of a song about how terrible we are at connecting to our fellow human beings, when left to our own devices. (This is especially ironic in a day and age where we have the kinds of “devices” that theoretically keep us connected to the people we love 24/7, though that’s not an issue specifically addressed by the song – I like to think it’s there between the lines, since electronic music is often accused of being cold and soulless and they’re purposefully using it to create the opposite effect.) Thinking back to Jars songs like “Weapons” and “Closer”, this one could have fit perfectly into The Long Fall Back to Earth and I’d have never noticed the difference. That being said, the layers upon layers of keyboard and vocal effects overloading the system won’t be for everyone, even those who liked Jars during their poppiest era. Still, I think this one could have some potential as a single. It’s thought-provoking and insanely catchy at the same time.
4. The New Hello
The group members had an in-joke while they were recording these songs – something they called “The John Hughes effect.” Basically anything that sounds like it could have been in the soundtrack to a climactic movie scene taking place at a high school dance in the 80s. This song, with its synth melody all hearts-a-flutter, certainly qualifies. You can just picture all of those awkward teenagers wearing bright, gaudy colors, the room all gender-segregated as awkward high school dances are prone to be: “It was girls on one side, and boys on the other/No one was dancing or looking for love.” The story Dan tells through his lyrics details a nameless “he” and “she” who are on opposite sides of the room, second-guessing themselves and afraid to take that step towards each other, and there’s a sort of sad, understated tragedy to this candy-coated slow dance that no one is dancing to, because it’s about the opportunities we lose out on due to not wanting to take the risk. If you were the shy guy or girl in college who just couldn’t get up the nerve to tell that attractive member of the opposite sex how you felt, then you’ll probably relate. It may sound strange for adult musicians well into their 30s to be angsting over long-lost would-be-lovers from high school, but it’s Dan’s ability to offer insight into the psychology behind this situation that ensures there’s still a lesson in it for us old fogies looking back.
5. Science Fiction
Sometimes a song that is quite silly on the surface can reveal a lot going on emotionally underneath. (A lot of Barenaked Ladies songs are like that, actually.) This one unfolds in that manner, seeming like little more than a series of oddball metaphors for a relationship that reference every sci-fi B-movie in existence: “You’re a robot army sent to end my race/Like a sea swallowing cities, I’ll be gone without a trace/And in your chronic, post-apocalyptic state of mind/You will leave the Earth behind.” The fact that it’s set to a starry, cosmic dance track makes it even easier to believe that this is all fluff just for the sake of having fun. But when it culminates in the blunt declaration that “Our love is science fiction” in the chorus, I can’t help feel sorry for the poor, put-upon old sap who is just now waking up to the reality of his affection being unrequited, and possibly the hell she’s put him through in their relationship as she’s slowly figured that out. Some won’t be able to get past the inherent goofiness of this song (and I know Dan’s work well enough to figure that he has to have done this on purpose), while others will think, “Yes! That’s exactly it! Just when I was starting to think I was the only one whose relationship was like Weird Science!”
6. Curse the Love Songs
If “The New Hello” was the soundtrack to a dance that made you want to kick yourself for not asking that cute girl to dance with you, then this is the soundtrack to the long, lonely drive home afterwards. The slow, airy piano and moody synth melody crank the melancholy up to 11, though Dan’s vocals and lyrics are more empathetic than angsty here, as if putting a hand on the poor kid’s shoulder and saying, he’s been there. “Have you thought you’d never breathe again?/Did the truth make a killer out of friend?/And in your heart, feel the weight that things will never change?/You’re not alone.” A lot of songs written from this perspective, especially from well-meaning adults in the CCM industry, would probably jump to “It’s gonna be alright” all too quickly, but here Dan is far from offering pat answers, and instead he simply offers a chance to go ahead and have a good cry, and to take it out on those other naive love songs that don’t know what the heck they’re talking about. Maybe that unattainable high school crush is really just a blip on the radar in the grand scheme of things, but a dude’s gotta learn to deal with heartbreak at some point, and this devastatingly beautiful song is one of those that I can see being comforting, simply by acknowledging that getting it all out of your system and shutting the world out to sleep it off for a little while is all part of the process. I’ve been there, too.
7. Wake Me Up
That string of four songs from the EP fit together so perfectly that I wouldn’t have wanted to break them up, but it is good to hear some new material from the group again. The Hawk’s longest and most indulgent song gets the second half of the album off to a solid start, hitting us over the head immediately with this cheesy two-note hit on the keyboards that somehow manages to be cool simply by not caring how dated it sounds. Just to test us with more sounds that the current state of popular music likes to tell us are uncool. Dan’s voice is drenched in Auto-tune for pretty much the entire song, and at six minutes, that’s quite a bit to endure for folks who think the human voice should be left unaltered. Personally, I like the icy effect that it adds to his voice, contrasting with the catchy rhythm track and the bright synth notes, painting a picture of him as a man trapped in a dreamlike limbo, longing to get back to the real world and the woman he loves, but unable to escape this state of hazy, confused sleep. It’s probably the simplest song on the album in terms of lyrics and repeated musical ideas, but this all works in favor of the trance-like state that the song seeks to invoke. Of the new songs that weren’t on the original EP, this one turned out to be my favorite.
8. Simple Machine
It takes guts to write a song about how the heart is complicated and “love is still a mystery” in this day and age. Those who hear this song and dismiss it as stating the obvious will definitely be missing the tragedy that’s present in the details. Despite a simple appearance on the surface, with the basic strum of an acoustic guitar, the sort of “rubbery” bass that I used to like to make fun of when I heard it in 80s songs, and bubbly synth notes gliding up and down with the rudimentary chord progression, Dan’s words in this song will cut like a knife if you really listen to them. He starts off questioning the architect who designed the human heart, asking why it’s gonna be so darn fickle and difficult to please, and before you know it he’s lamenting the kind of problems that can only be known by someone experiencing the decay of a long-term relationship: “Dinner conversations after years of getting cold/The things that made us fall in love in houses that we sold”, and then later, the real clincher: “We cite longevity as a reason we’re still here/Is another anniversary just another day, I fear?” It’s the same gut-wrenching feeling I got from “Safe to Land” once I started to figure out what that song was all about, and for his sake, I sure hope this one isn’t written from first-hand experience. It’s all too common, though, even among long-running married couples who look like they’re living the perfect life with the picket fence and 2.4 kids and whatnot – somewhere along the way, you take for granted the fact that love was once effortless, you stop putting the work into it, and life slowly degrades into mind-numbing boredom, all because we think love is easier to keep alive than it actually is. As heartbreaking as this is to hear, I’m glad someone had the courage to go there. The coda might drag out repetitions of “your love is still a mystery to me” for longer than it needs to, but that’s forgivable in a song that otherwise knows how to grab my attention and not let go.
Two more new songs are up next, and this one’s perfectly timed after the heartbroken questions brought up in “Simple Machine” – I want to describe it as a piano ballad, but it doesn’t play out in as simple of a fashion as something like “Fall Asleep” did on the latest Jars album – its opening is very sparse, and it isn’t until the upright piano comes in at the chorus that the rhythm of the song becomes clear – it’s one of those off-beat rhythms that tricks you into thinking it’s a simple 4/4 but tacks on an extra beat, which I guess turns it into 5/4 – it’s just hard to tell without the syncopation that most bands would apply to an unorthodox time signature. This effect made the song drag a bit at first, but now I sort of like how it seems to add gravity to each chord change, particularly in the climactic bridge when the drum programming and glowing keyboards become a lot more pronounced. This one’s an interesting mix of acoustic and synthetic elements that I can’t easily categorize as “synthpop”, and it’s all done in service of a very sad song that reminds me of Vienna Teng‘s “Antebellum”, in the sense that it finds a man grudgingly admitting to a cease fire with the woman he once loved, and offering a bit of a backhanded compliment: “If you leave me now, you’ll leave me better than I was before.” This one’s a slow-burner – it’s just now starting to emerge as one of my new favorites.
10. Birds on a Wire
Also defying my expectations just when I thought I had this group’s musical style pegged, is this brisk tune which bases itself around a lovely little snippet of piano melody in 6/8, gradually adding dense drums and electronic sounds to bring it to a spirited gallop. This one abounds with strange metaphors – just get a load of the first few lines: “We took aim at the wires where the love birds wait/For the sky and the wind to decide their fate/With a steady grip we stretched our bows/Where each one fell, there grew a rose.” At least, I hope these are metaphors, because, those poor birds! I guess it all fits in with the M.O. of letting a man’s heart bleed right there on his sleeve for all to see, as they’ve done throughout most of the album, and this one turns out to be an interesting contrast to “Cannons” as it ultimately ends up trying to mend the relationship that got so mercilessly shot down and begging, “Baby don’t leave me.”
11. Between the World and You
I will admit to not liking this song too much the first few times through, but this is probably the one case where my opinion changed most radically in the two years between the EP and now. On the first few listens, it seemed to struggle to get going, its melody seemed to bend in odd ways that I didn’t like, and its lyrics seemed too sparse, with overly simplistic rhymes (“Fear”/”near”/”here”, for example, and that’s just the first verse, and there are only two brief verses and a one-line chorus). After a while I started to dig the vibe with the cool, dark bass that gives the song its melodic anchor, and the heavy programming that shows up for about a third of the song to add sudden drama. All of the song’s bittersweet hues give it great texture, once the full picture has been painted. (I think I even hear an electric guitar here – though its sound has been tweaked to match the bluish-grey landscape.) And its message of dedication to protect someone from harm, though simplistic, is effective – “I will stand between the world and you.” I still wish there was a little more to flesh it out, but I think it works better near the end of this album than it did smack dab in the middle of the EP.
12. When the Stars Come Out
The trio’s softer side comes out in the finale, which finds Dan pondering a city slowly falling asleep after the sun has set below the horizon, understanding how the darkness can be depressing to some, but seeing an opportunity to discover beauty in the night sky and our feeble human attempts to keep the world lit enough to go about our business: “We’re the blood in the veins of the cars on the neon streets/When love won’t go out of fashion with these hearts on our sleeves.” With its calm, twinkling synths and its crackling rhythm, there are times when this one reminds me of the remixed version of David Crowder Band‘s “Stars”, though I guess part of that’s due to the subject matter. In any event, it’s a beautiful little piece of mood music the ends the album on a peaceful, hopeful note – the sun hasn’t come up to brighten the world again just yet, but as Dan croons “Sleep, city, sleep/Let the sun go down”, it’s easy to feel a sense of relief at the day’s problems momentarily coming to an end, with the hope of a better day tomorrow lying ahead.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Beg For Love $1.50
Put Your Arms Around Me $1.75
The New Hello $1.50
Science Fiction $2
Curse the Love Songs $2
Wake Me Up $1.75
Simple Machine $1.75
Birds on a Wire $1.25
Between the World and You $1
When the Stars Come Out $1.25
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: