Interscope 20023337 02
On tour, Tame Impala is a five-piece band, but in the studio it’s all Kevin Parker. He plays every instrument and sings all vocals on his recordings, and produces, engineers, and mixes the results. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Parker’s inspiration for Lonerism (2012), Tame Impala’s second full-length album, was Todd Rundgren’s epic 1973 recording, A Wizard, a True Star. Rundgren similarly keeps a firm hand on every aspect of his recordings, on which he, too, has occasionally played all of the instruments.
Rundgren did a remix of “Elephant,” from Lonerism, and it certainly gives the track an interesting new angle. In the original, “Elephant” sounds like early Pink Floyd -- part of Parker’s charm is that so many strains of pop music run through him. Currents, Tame Impala’s new disc, opens with “Let It Happen” in a rush of mid-1960s Motown-style stuttering keyboards that Parker updates by adding synth washes. Halfway through the track, Parker uses studio trickery to create the effect of a CD skipping before bringing in keys, synths, and drum machines to create a ’70s disco feel. At that point the track becomes an homage to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, which itself paid tribute to disco. It’s a bit like being caught in a pop-culture loop, but the song is so much fun you won’t mind.
“The Moment” brings back the 1980s and Tears for Fears, but instead of being a mere knockoff, this track is expansive and harmonically rich. “Yes I’m Changing” recalls the lush ballads of Rundgren’s A Wizard, a True Star and Todd (1974), but the intervening four decades’ worth of ever-improving technology allow Parker to inject a bit more playfulness into his synths. Rundgren’s influence is even more prominent on Currents than on Lonerism. The deep, effects-heavy, spoken-word portion of “Past Life,” for example, owes much to “Fair Warning,” from Rundgren’s Initiation (1975).
Listening to Currents, I miss Parker’s guitar playing. This made the intro to “Eventually” reassuring, but still, Currents is even more keyboard-heavy than its predecessors. Parker has also made the bass more prominent in the mix, and that’s a good thing -- he’s an outstanding bassist, and his playing gives these songs focus and a strong rhythmic undercurrent they would otherwise lack.
Perhaps the most impressive track on Currents is “New Person, Same Old Mistakes,” built on a strong bass line and layers of keyboards that create an effect of orchestral depth. It’s easy to pick out Parker’s influences, from the Beatles to ’80s keyboard-based bands (e.g., the Human League), to the sweet soul of ’70s groups like the Whispers. It’s a beautiful and audacious track as carefully constructed as a Fabergé Egg, and it establishes Parker as more than the sum of his influences.
As beautiful and layered as Currents is, however, I found myself longing for a more human touch. A closer study of Rundgren would have revealed that, even at his most abstract and technologically sophisticated, Rundgren lets his emotions come through in his singing. Parker adds effects to everything, including his voice -- so does Rundgren, on occasion -- but there’s an emotional distance in Parker’s singing that gives his music the effect of being solely a studio creation.
Which, of course, it is, and it’s a luxurious and enjoyable listen. It’s densely packed, but Greg Calbi’s mastering ensures that every nuance is easy to hear. The kick drums and bass pop without being overbearing, and the studio effects register in astonishing relief. After three CDs, Kevin Parker/Tame Impala is a master of songcraft and studio wizardry. A more human touch could make him one of the great rockers of all time.
. . . Joseph L. Taylor