Starting as a friendship between singer/keyboardist Lizzy Ellison and guitarist Cameron Spies, Radiation City had quaint beginnings at a DIY record label, Apes Tapes, which released music only on cassette. Soon after, they would be known as Portland’s best new band, with alt weeklies even dubbing them as “Jetsons-era doo-wop.” Given the band’s dreamy pop flourishes, nostalgic bossa nova elements, and ‘60s harmonies, the comparison is warranted. This isn’t their first go-around, though. Serving as their third full-length album, Synesthetica features a more confident outfit blending more pop appeal into their mix.
Just as in their previous records, the band’s sound combines space-age soundscapes with shimmering synths ripped straight out of a lost Stereolab album. Each song radiates with glistening pop vibes and the lush choruses of the Mamas and Papas and the Beach Boys. Songs like “Juicy” and “Fancy Cherries” boast sheets of vocal arrangements in which Ellison’s voice soars above steady grooves and starry-eyed production. Spies and Ellison exchange lines on “Come and Go”, accompanied by soft coos, hard-hitting syncopated chords, and sinuous jazz solos. Meanwhile, “Separate” also finds two vocalists trading singing duties amidst lavish acoustic guitar and languid piano. Throughout, they take dated elements of bossa nova and jazz and manage to filter them through a pop lens.
While 2011’s The Hands That Take You and 2013’s Animals in the Median wandered with lackluster results, Radiation City sound far more confident in their steps here. Ellison’s voice had once shown potential for slow-burning leads, but would at times slur into an undecipherable, muddled mix. Now in songs like “Milky White” and “Butter”, her voice cuts right through the complex instrumentation and ricochets between a trembling croon and thumping wail.
Most telling, though, is the fact that the band has improved in trimming out the excess that would over-clutter her. Their production had seemed so robust and maximal that it almost felt forced, distorted guitar and airy synthesizer cramping every spare inch and distracting from the lyrics. Now, Radiation City shine when they cut things back. On the bossa groove “Separate”, a simple acoustic strum accompanies Spies, and minimal drum flares accentuate Ellison’s melancholic runs. They do still amp things up, from time to time. On “Futures”, the ambient electronics and textured vocals take notes from Pet Sounds.
While the album does make impressive strides, it doesn’t come without its shortcomings. Even at 39 minutes, the Synesthetica feels repetitive at times, small modifications made here and there to a tested formula. Radiation City further boiled down their influences while simultaneously boosting their pop appeal, but may be on the path to over-course-correction. Radiation City have a lot promise, but let’s hope that they will find a stronger blend between their adventurous flourishes and precise pop strength.
Essential Tracks: “Separate”, “Futures”, and “Milky White”