No band sums up the Pitchfork problem as perfectly as Passion Pit. Like the popular website that trumpets music for the hipsterati, this Cambridge, Mass., combo — an arena-pop crowd-pleaser masquerading as a dance-inflected indie band — doesn't seem to know exactly what it wants to be when it grows up.
Last month, Pitchfork released "The People's List," an exhaustive, redundant and not-at-all-surprising poll ranking the top 200 records released between 1996 and 2011, based on the votes of 27,981 readers. At this point, Pitchfork is the closest thing the world of so-called indie rock has to a publication of record. It is a firebrand that attracts equal doses of admiration and scorn, bestowing much-coveted "Best New Music" certifications on a small assortment of lucky artists each year and writing at length on a variety of others. It came into life 16 years ago as an online niche publication crafting reviews for a small segment of the music-listening world. "The People's List" paints a much different picture of Pitchfork's present — and that of indie rock at large.
The survey is proof that the vague classification "indie rock" is becoming less and less separate from that other less-than-specific category, "mainstream." It is Passion Pit's mainstream appeal that's led the band to "Woo Ooooh!" all the way to the bank.
Pitchfork's "People's List" illustrates how such a band could succeed. The top 20 is filled with artists who sport approachable sounds and large fan bases. Radiohead, which grabbed the top two spots, is a grunge-era art-rock survivor that routinely packs arenas and headlines large-scale festivals such as Bonnaroo and Coachella. The Arcade Fire's The Suburbs — the Canadian indie band's bombastic slice of Springsteen in an aeroplane over the sea — entered Billboard at No. 1 and won the 2011 Album of the Year Grammy. Expansive folk musician Bon Iver has collaborated with Kanye West — another Pitchfork top-20 entry — and won this year's Best New Artist Grammy. But none merge radio-ready accessibility and the sonic hallmarks of "indie" quite like Passion Pit.
"Gossamer is a perfect title for Passion Pit's new record," NPR's Austin Cooper noted. "The long-awaited follow-up to its breakthrough album, 2009's Manners, finds the band spinning shimmering silk from many intricately layered threads: airy synths, warm bass, crisp snares, crashing cymbals, singer Michael Angelakos' expressive falsetto."
Such praise isn't misplaced. Gossamer, released in July, is cluttered and complex, but its domineering melodies smooth out any rough edges. As the title suggests, the record's blustery palette is naught but a gauze, the new robe used to smuggle radio-pop techniques past people who would normally turn up their noses at such material. Behind every glitching synth line is an addictively simple melody. Each chorus is a grandiose, gang-vocal-backed statement of emotion. This is pop, plain and simple, made with massive scope and intended for a large audience.
On record, Passion Pit is almost entirely the work of Michael Angelakos. The publicity surrounding Gossamer's release made press-baiting fodder of his battle with bipolar disorder, and the record is indeed a mismatch of weighty emotions and buoyant uplift. But Angelakos is exacting in the details. Every disparate element locks together just so, giving Gossamer an artificial liveliness that often flies in the face of his over-the-top emotionality.
Adding to the calculated feel, Angelakos sources elements from an array of artists, seeming to reach for a broad "indie" appeal to expand the reach of his accessible songs. "Love Is Greed" cops the clicking and popping atmospherics of The Postal Service, lending a frenetic feel to straightforward synth-pop. The short interlude "Two Veils to Hide My Face" inhabits the ethereal Auto-Tune popularized by Imogen Heap. And "Cry Like a Ghost" appropriates the sped-up, high-pitched vocal samples of Kanye West, another artist adept at balancing critical appeal with mainstream success.
Overall, Gossamer feels forced, as if it's straining to cast as wide a net as possible. But it's not without promise. "Hideaway" for instance, is a confounding, cross-generational pop confluence. Wildly effected techno synthesizers blare at the opening, only to transform into a thrilling mix of old-school piano pop and stomping dance rock. The vocal melodies and harmonies lilt with Beach Boys-inspired melodrama, but the music explodes with colorful modern flourishes, transforming Brian Wilson's pocket-symphonics into something big, brash and filled with wonder.
In moments like this, Passion Pit proves there's power in the muddied middle ground between "indie" and "mainstream." There's hope here for another way, a place where such labels no longer matter.
Passion Pit. $33. Sept. 19, 8 p.m. The Fillmore. www.livenation.com.
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