Let’s start by throwing out the book on La Big Vic. That is to say, forget what you know or think you know about this band. If you already know little or nothing about them, so much the better. Their debut album, 2011’s Actually, didn’t receive that much attention, and perhaps that’s part of the reason why they chose to release a remixed version of it later that same year. You could say it speaks to their indecisiveness, that they’d act so quickly as if to say, “If you didn’t like that first version, here’s a different one we hope you’ll like better.” They are George Lucas, endlessly tweaking the Star Wars films until they’re nearly unrecognizable from their first form. It’ll be interesting to see if the band takes that same remix tactic with their sophomore album Cold War. It’s an interesting and different record from their first one to be sure, and it speaks better to their individual backgrounds while also bringing more focus and better pop structures to the forefront. Their first record and its remixed companion weren’t bad by any means, but they feel starkly different compared to how La Big Vic sounds today. You could say they’re looking for and are getting a fresh start.
La Big Vic is a trio made up of producer and multi-instrumentalist Toshio Masuda, synth guru and composer Peter Pearson and violinist and singer Emilie Friedlander. Before coming to America, Masuda was a member of a boy band and produced hip hop records and commercials. Pearson had some training as an apprentice to one of Pink Floyd’s live producers, and Friedlander was a music blogger and editor of the former Pitchfork offshoot Altered Zones. Their very disparate backgrounds ultimately wind up being a huge asset to their overall sound, as they pull from such a grand chasm of influences that range from electronica to jazz to psychedelia to synth-pop. Such a conglomeration doesn’t work on paper, which is why actually hearing it makes it seem that much more impressive of a feat. On Cold War nothing sounds too bizarre either, and you might actually say the final product is one part Zero 7 and one part Kaputt from Destroyer.
There’s a strong beat that flows like an undercurrent through many of the songs, lending them an almost trip-hop sort of vibe with a few unique twists along the way. Moments like the opening title track or Avalanches-esque vocal sampling in “Save the Ocean” reach a great head-bopping, toe-tapping groove, but also place themselves underneath a grey cloud that is threatening rain the entire time. That sense of unease and dread permeates most of these instrumentals only adds to their strange charm. Friedlander’s vocals aren’t any help either, jumping from a throaty moan to some sky-high falsetto cries of ecstasy that make you question whether or not such reactions are earned given how they bounce all over the place like a rubber ball in a small space. On “Emilie Say’s” she goes from an almost inhuman vocal high-pitched effect at the beginning to cascading through multiple octaves and eventually creating harmonies via multiple overdubs. In one sense it’s remarkably impressive, while on the other it lacks a certain degree of emotional investment. It’s easy to argue that inability to connect emotionally hurts your enjoyment of the final product, but it can just as easily be argued that such abstract ambiguity is purposeful to go along with the lyrics.
If there’s one real takeaway that Cold War offers up, it’s the remarkable clarity of intention that shines through almost every song. For a band that was built on flights of fancy and strange avenues of experimentation, this new album is strikingly straightforward, with big melodies and addictive hooks. The ease at which “All That Heaven Allows” or “Ave B” become stuck-in-your-head staples is impressive and would have been utterly unthinkable from La Big Vic two years ago. And while both of those tracks have a rather relaxed vibe to them, you’re also treated to ’80s synth pop dance tracks like “Nuclear Bomb” and “Cave Man” to twist things up in a fun and different way. In other words, this album has enough variety and experimentation on it to satisfy those in search of such elements while also placating anyone who wants something bigger, bolder and more commercially accessible. The band wants to have their cake and eat it too, and while the album might not quite be that first true masterpiece of 2013, it comes pretty damn close. The record also goes a long way to make sure that once you’ve heard it, you won’t ever forget this band again.