Slow Dance in the Cosmos, the 2013 full-length debut from Porches, ends with main man Aaron Maine instructing the listener, “Pay no attention while I’m getting spaced out” o, and the several singles he’s released since then have been clear signals that he really does want to go dancing, and that he is indeed getting spaced out.
These singles have also eased listeners into the sound that dominates Pool, Porches’ Domino debut and second official album. The melodies are subtler, and instead of distorted open guitar chords, Maine mainly mutes the strings with his palm in a restrained style that was originally a hallmark of the smooth ‘80s jams Steve Lukather played on. The synths sound like he’s cribbing from Phil Collins’ old keyboard banks, but in doing so messed up the programming a little. There is almost always an underlying inorganic sound that’s either ominous, nauseous, or both, and it’s the only thing that guarantees that none of the slower tracks will unknowingly be embraced in dentists’ waiting rooms next to classic soft rock. The faster songs are highly danceable, especially with these queasy keys.
Maine has projected darkness before, employing characters with names like Franklin and Ronnie to do most of his dirty work. But Franklin only makes one appearance here, in the first song, “Underwater,” where in an Auto-Tuned monotone Maine simply says, “Hi there, Franklin underwater,” like he’s in a secret space, greeting an imaginary friend that makes him do bad things. This sets the tone for the murkiness that follows. Watery references abound and one gets the sense that the pool he keeps referring back to is not cleaned too frequently.
Maine’s voice has a similar velvety depth to Josh Tillman, and his seismic shift in approach is similar to Tillman’s transformation from earnest folker into Father John Misty, the lovable lothario. As with Misty’s first appearance, it’s hard not to wonder if this type of distancing from previously released output is a put-on or a phase.
It’s also hard to take at face value the sincerity of someone who suddenly does such a great job at mimicking an E-Z listening style of sorts that until recently was something that a lot of people laughed at or liked ironically. Maine ups the ante when he sings a statement as plaintive as “I don’t wanna be here” in “Mood,” and this reticent phrase is followed by a snazzy syncopated clap. Is he messing with us?
But this is where Pool gets its edge. It’s a dance where the listeners are lured in, but cautious of getting too close, for fear that it’s all a big gotcha. In “Be Apart,” he sings, “I wanna be a part of it all”; or is he singing “I wanna be apart of it all?” Even when he’s marveling, “Oh, what a machine” about automobiles in “Cars,” it sounds like he is trying to take his mind off something that has deeply saddened him. There are plenty of drug references to underline this escapist quality: In “Shape,” which is perhaps the album’s finest moment, he sings, “I was hovering seven stories up / I had all my things / And we were black out / And for all the shapes that we get into / I only wanna be in them with you.” Pretty intense for a yacht, even one that’s flying through the cosmos.