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Review: Is Porches’ The House For Him or Us?

There were lots of remarkable things about Pool, the 2016 album by New York’s Aaron Maine, who records dreamy electropop and electro dreampop as Porches. First, there was the impression of vaulting space between the hushed amplitude of his bass and the shimmering humidity of his synths. Then, there was the languorous character of his vocal melodies and the mesmeric evenness of his phrasing. Finally, there was his unusual version of sultry music about water, nocturnal rather than sunny, evoking white moonlight beating on black waves and indigo roiled by Jacuzzi jets. There was also the element of surprise, as nothing in Maine’s prior disheveled folk-rock suggested he had such an album of enigmatic, sophisticated electropop in him.

The House began immediately with a sense of urgency,” Maine has said of his new, third album. But, to listeners, that might feel more apt of the inky elixir of restlessness and ennui he distilled two years ago. Recorded over an eighteen-month span, The House stays in the mode of Pool but—it can’t help but be said—also waters it down, diluting its pneumatic pressure with a lot of short, thinly sketched tracks. The tacit demand upon listeners is to take it in as a gossamer whole, whereas Pool invited us to ladle out its pleasures one taut, durable song at a time. You’ll discover plenty of laconic beauty wherever you drop into The House, and it glimmers with the songful club music that made its predecessor great for getting ready to go out. But a profusion of digital-pastoral vocal settings makes it unlikely to displace Pool from constant shuffle rotation.

It’s never wise to put all your stock in artistic intention, but Maine’s framing of the album might account for a certain inaccessibility. He has also described The House as a diary, an “exercise in documenting my immediate experiences … in a more linear way.” This can work well for people who do really interesting things or describe them in really interesting ways, but, of course, it always risks being most interesting to the diarist. Maine, with a voice like thick, slow, surprisingly sweet syrup, is a stoner impressionist par excellence, but the minutiae of The House doesn’t have the weirdly shining definition of, say, a certain Magritte-like vision found on Pool’s “Hour” (“All I want / Is an apple inside of my gray skies”). Nor does it reveal much, papering over specifics with generalizations of solitude and desire—unless Maine really does spend the majority of his time lowering himself into water or watching someone else do it.  

Album opener “Leave the House” thrums like an underground dance floor, recalling the best parts of Pool, with an earworm vocal by Maine and backing from (Sandy) Alex G. But, running a little over two minutes, it doesn’t have time to develop the dynamic fullness of “Braid” or “Underwater” or “Be Apart.” Given more room to breathe, it could have been as satisfying as The House’s next track, “Find Me,” a gently pouncing nodder, or “Now the Water,” with its little Phoenix-y guitar chimes, or “Anymore,” sloe-eyed and louvered with AutoTune.

This expansion could have come at the negligible cost of a few one-or-two-minute set pieces that, barring the limpid, Dev Hynes-featuring “Country,” don’t add a lot to the album. Unlike Bon Iver, whom the briefer tracks evoke, Maine’s voice comes to life when threaded with a strong screw, not as its own tapestry. It’s genuinely sweet that his dad wrote and sings “Understanding,” but it’s also indicative of an album that’s maybe a bit more for its creator than for us, which is fine. It’s just that, usually, we reasonably expect artists to mine and transfigure personal stuff for us, not just document it. Otherwise, we’d just live.