Echoboy's Richard Warren should be in heaven: he's signed to Mute Records -- the Blue Note of manic-depressive synth-pop -- he's got '80s stalwart Flood producing him, and he's releasing his third album at a time when albums by Ladytron, the Postal Service and Adult. might actually make his chosen style hip again. So why does he sound so ill at ease?
To be sure, some of it's intentional. He's the kind of guy who'll deliver a line like "at last the holiday" in a croak better suited to "I'm sorry, we lost the patient", just to savor your cognitive dissonance. And you don't get signed to Mute by being well-adjusted and sunny, do you?
Unfortunately, he has a tendency to overplay that hand. Like the Auteurs' Luke Haines, Warren has a gift for deftly mixing plaintive yearning and steel-eyed spite, as on the acerbic sing-along "Comfort of the Hum" -- but these sentiments are more affecting when they're played straight. When he abstracts them with excess digital noise or tries to startle us with stark, dramatic arrangements, as on "High Speed in Love" or "Summer Rhythm", he's less convincing.
The album's standout moment is "Good on T.V.", a heartbreaker of a tune with a buzzing, bass-propelled chorus that conjures ghosts of the Sisters of Mercy at their teeth-baring best. It should be played loudly from every dorm room window starting immediately, and it's very nearly worth the cost of the album -- though the slurred New Order pub chant "Automatic Eyes" runs a close second.
In the end, though, Warren too often undercuts his successes by trying to impress us with his strangeness. He's not a Gary Numan or a Scary Monsters-era Bowie, not enough of an actor to sell us on half-formed android detachment; he's more like The The's Matt Johnson, whose oddity feels like a raw nerve, uncomfortable but genuine. He'd be as compelling sitting next to you in a crowded bar as he would in the spotlight, and in Giraffe's best moments he outshines all of his album's flashy, expensive special effects with his own simple humanity. That's a testament to his talent, but it should also be a call to reassess his game plan.