Just when you thought you knew the man, Sitek goes and does something bold, unexpected and... fun

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Album review: Maximum Balloon - Maximum Balloon (Interscope)

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Album review: Maximum Balloon – Maximum Balloon (Interscope)

Born a hipster, die a pop star,” seems to be the mantra of [b]Dave Sitek[/b] on his [a]Maximum Balloon[/a] project. After dumping Brooklyn for California by moving there, he’s moved into its headspace too – you could tag this as his ‘West Coast record’. And, man, the view is beautiful.

The roadmap [b]Sitek[/b]’s used for this journey is based on classic ’80s pop. He cited the prefab funk of [a]Prince[/a] B-side ‘[b]17 Days[/b]’, [a]Madonna[/a]’s Danceteria pop juvenilia and the synthesized eccentricity of [a]Cyndi Lauper[/a]’s ‘[b]She’s So Unusual[/b]’ as jump-off points. He’s also named the project after a childhood game of writing “random messages on balloons”. Both of which suggest that he’s in the mood to shake off the shackles of [a]TV On The Radio[/a]’s high-mindedness in favour of something more innocent, instinctual and fun.

Indeed, adjectives that come to mind when listening to ‘[b]Maximum Balloon[/b]’ are: bright, colourful, carefree and neon – quite a leap for someone whose day-job band has been described as ‘post millennial’ and ‘dystopic urban jams’. Toto, we’re not in Williamsburg anymore…

In a way, this musical U-turn seems appropriate when you consider that he’s been deconstructing the pop song and then putting it back together for years. After the boundary-busting ‘[b]Dear Science[/b]’ he’s pushed things even further, and on ‘[b]Maximum Balloon[/b]’ has synthesized his sound into something radical – some sort of unique 21st century funk.

Like much of what Sitek does, the best moments are the unexpected ones. There’s ‘[b]Apartment Wrestling[/b]’, which manages to distil everything that makes [a]David Byrne[/a] so compelling via its nervy rhythms and seconds-away-from-collapsing time signatures. There’s ‘[b]Young Love[/b]’, which pits the castor oil-thick vocals of [a]Celebration[/a]’s [a]Katrina Ford[/a] (which recall both [a]Siouxsie[/a] and [a]Propaganda[/a]’s [a]Claudia Brucken[/a]) against a whirring, tingling synth line. The effectively loopy results are as good as anything by his ’80s golden oldie templates.

Next to these moments of transcendence, though, are elements of [b]Sitek[/b]’s vision which clearly don’t work as well. The [a]NERD[/a]-esque single ‘[b]Tiger[/b]’ (with vocals from [a]Dragons Of Zynth[/a] singer [b]Aku[/b]) suffers from sounding like it’s trying too hard to sound effortlessly [b]TVOTR[/b]-esque. Instead it ends up like nothing more than a cheap copy of Sitek’s band. On ‘[b]Groove Me[/b]’ (with [a]Theophilus London[/a]) Sitek’s music is minimal and carefully layered, yet London’s flow is riddled with clichés (“[i]catch this sound/Before it blows up[/i]”) and the result is a by-numbers dance workout. Most disappointing of all though, is the slinky but underwhelming [b]Karen O[/b] team-up on ‘[b]Communion[/b]’ which never seems to take off from its sedentary beat position, and instead sounds like a leftover from ‘[b]It’s Blitz[/b]!’.

But there’s plenty left in-between to feast on. After [b]Sitek[/b] brought such golden alchemy to her debut, the [a]Holly Miranda[/a] track (‘[b]The Lesson[/b]’) is a soaring number which grafts her [a]Jeff Buckley[/a]-like vocals on to a patchworky, ambient background to beautiful effect. ‘[b]If You Return[/b]’ re-imagines [a]Yazoo[/a] for 2010 with [a]Little Dragon[/a] singer [b]Yukimi Nagano[/b]’s drowsy vocals wonderfully complementing Sitek’s slow musical build-up. And ‘[b]Absence Of Light[/b]’ with [b]Tunde Adebimpe[/b] is a clattering, abstract beast which adds a much-needed darker hue to the proceedings.

Sitek’s made the leap into solodom with boldness and panache. There’s a sense of cohesion here, which can be sometimes lacking on ‘featuring’ albums ([a]NASA[/a], we’re looking at you). And with a man who’s worked with everyone from [a]Amanda Blank[/a] to [b]Aziz Ansari[/b]’s RAAAAAAAAANDY! at its helm, it feels like [b]Maximum Balloon[/b] is a project that could inflate infinitely. Let’s hope it does.

[b]Priya Elan[/b]

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‘Maximum Balloon’ from Rough Trade Shops.