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Signer: The New Face of Smiling

By: Julia Simon

I was skeptical as I started listening to the latest album by New Zealand’s Signer (n� Bevan Smith): The first track on the album, “Low Light Sleep,” almost feels like filler. But after repeated listens, it became apparent that the track establishes Signer’s signature pairing of synthetic sounds with airy, natural vocals. About halfway through the track, Signer’s tenor–suggestive of a monotone Thom Yorke–begins to crescendo, but never to the point that it audibly overtakes the fuzzed-out electric guitar. The synthetic, textured instrumentation is a startling contrast to Signer’s smooth voice. He turns vocals into backup instruments and instruments into sonic beauty. The same movement is repeated. The same, barely audible lyrics are sung again. It’s almost impossible to characterize what you just heard, but you like it. When you can finally put your revelatory experience into words, you realized that Signer accomplishes what many artists, especially experimental electronic ones, do not: He achieves contrast through subtlety. The title of his second track, “Hurricane or Sunshine?,” examines the crux of Signer’s musical argument: Is it possible to combine elements that seem diametrically opposed? Are hurricanes and sunshine mutually exclusive? Can sounds from acoustic guitars and electronic machines be layered and still be recognized as music, rather than just noise? For Signer, the answer is an unreserved yes. “Hurricane or Sunshine?” combines synthetic sampling � la the Postal Service with the folksy-pop of Badly Drawn Boy’s soundtrack to About A Boy, and the result is an immaculately balanced, albeit seemingly oxymoronic, blip-folk track.

Not all of the tracks are so heavily sample based, but all combine wildly disparate elements. On “Your Ears Across the Fences,” Signer creates, counterintuitively enough, melodic discord, in a fluid and ominous soundscape similar to that of Mogwai. And then there are the staunchly rhythmic, almost violent tracks that are once ritualistic and futuristic. “You’re Killing Us Helen” sounds like a duel between robotic elephants. And “The Sinking Feeling As Key Metal Hits Thigh Flesh” might as well be culled from a soundtrack to some futuristic aboriginal tribe. The tracks are obscure and uninhibited, and, above all, innovative.

The New Face is so brilliant in part because of its simplicity: it’s painfully slow, so quiet at times it’s practically nonexistent, and it’s repetitive. But rather than resigning itself to any one of these imperfections, the album uses all of them to its advantage. The layers of instrumental tension produce ten raw, pure tracks. Signer is indeed getting more experimental, and much better, with each release. It’s the kind of album that asks more questions about the boundaries of music than offers answers, and it just might leave you speechless and confused, silently searching for a tornado on a sunny day.

Grade: A