No Signal (6/29/18)
Breaking up is hard to do - especially when it’s with an entire country. This is where No Signal, the second official release from psych/synth project Elle Belle, begins. Helmed by Los Angeles based composer Christopher Pappas (aka Elle) the nine song album works through the stages of a breakup - the heartbreak, betrayal, bargaining, and the unanswered questions. However, this isn’t your typical album break up record - this is about politics. Pappas isn’t breaking up with a partner. No Signal is an album about breaking up with America.
“After the election I was pretty depressed” recalls Pappas. Like most sane people, the 2016 election left him shellshocked. He spent that winter in NH, where he grew up, going over what went wrong. “I started writing during that time and what came out felt like a break up song.” That first song, which later became the titular track “No Signal,” acts as the thesis for the record, and paints a dreary picture of two people growing apart: “You and I on hard times / all around a slow divide / and there’s no signal.”
Isolation. A great divide. No signal in, no signal out.
“I realized that it felt like I was writing a break up album. I was going through all the same stages of grief.” he says laughing, “Everything was a love song gone wrong so I kept following that feeling.” The result is an album with a story that at times can feel cinematic - even the cover art - an incredibly close-up photo of a man (not Pappas) with nothing but a static T.V. in the background pangs of loneliness and looks like a still from a movie. “I wouldn’t call it a concept record, as that idea has particular baggage, but the songs do share a singular vision and narrative.”
Pappas is used to telling grand stories with music. He’s made his career as a versatile and prolific composer: He has written music for NASA, composed an award winning musical slated to go off-broadway, and even assembled and conducted his own orchestra to play his original orchestral works. As the songwriter for his long running group The Everyday Visuals his writing has achieved a cult-like status among fellow musicians and fans. Twin-Tone founder Peter Jesperson, responsible for luminaries like The Replacements, Husker Du and The Suburbs says of Pappas: “His talent is so far-reaching it's nothing short of staggering. The writing and instrumentation are always expertly done and the singing makes most contemporary artists look like amateurs.”
Pappas possibly holds the title of best songwriter you haven’t heard yet - and No Signal could be the proof. It masterfully fuses synth with punk, acoustic with electronic, lo-fi garagerock with hi-fi pop. “In the Garden” with its metronomic beat and Kraftwerk like synth (that will stick in your head for days) talks of being replaced. “You had a vision there / in nowhere America / and had it disappear / to end up in the soil” “That song is about feeling obsolete. It’s about seeing a job you have turn to automation, or a partner move on and find someone new. It’s about getting older and seeing the world change and wondering: ‘Does the world even need me anymore?’” On “the real world” we find our main character recalling an apocalyptic event and admitting to his apathy playing a part in causing it: “Then people were dying / All we did was stop and stare / now it seems so silly / but I guess you had to be there.” It feels almost Randy Newman-esque in its use of irony to bemoan how we all let a president meme his way into office. It seemed silly - but it’s not so silly now.
The final track “Goodnight, Good Luck”, with its dreamy guitars gives the listener a chance to say goodbye. It’s the final scene in our movie where we see there is no reconciliation. It’s over. We’re not getting back together. Thus we’ve arrived at the final stage: acceptance.
Goodnight America - and good luck.