Your skepticism is warranted. Your indifference is understandable. The musical landscape is lousy with twentysomething duos using electronic instruments to make vaguely psychedelic pop, and most of them hit with all the uniqueness and allure of a brand-new Urban Outfitters location.
It would be dishonest to claim that San Francisco's Painted Palms does not belong to this milieu, just as it would be unrealistic to suggest that you definitely won't hear songs from the band's long-awaited debut album pumping out of your local American Apparel anytime soon. That is entirely possible. It is also possible — and maybe even likely — that you would wake up the next morning with that Painted Palms song stuck in your head, and find yourself happy about it. (At least if you heard the right song at the right volume, and you weren't too busy digging through the selection of American Apparel dog hoodies.)
After two EPs, a national tour with Of Montreal, and the compulsory buzz from a couple of national music websites, Painted Palms have done something on Forever, their debut album, that a lot of their twentysomething sampler-loving peers have not. They have managed to write songs. Not beats with lyrics over them, or stunted riffs copied-and-pasted to last three and a half minutes, but songs, with structures and changes and hooks and lush canopies of sound. Songs tell a musical story: They have a beginning, an end, and a climax somewhere in between, and a few parts that stick inside your head whether you notice right away or not. Most of the tracks on Forever have that, and a handful of them work very well. Which is how this young duo manages to stand out among that large cohort of would-be clothing store-soundtrackers.
Painted Palms didn't start out so auspiciously. Three years ago at a family gathering in Louisiana, cousins Christopher Prudhomme and Reese Donohue found themselves with some time to kill before dinner. Both had grown up on a classically casual American diet of music: piano lessons abandoned after a few years, picking up guitar in their early teens, some bands in high school. By the time dinner came that evening, they found themselves with the outlines of a song. Donohue went back to San Francisco, but he kept working on music with his cousin through the Internet and over the phone. He'd come up with a short, repetitive beat on his laptop, and send it to Prudhomme, who'd record vocals over it and send it back. Then they'd fiddle with the result for a while before sending it to a blog. They worked this way for two years, releasing music in small bursts: hazy, Balearic pop with vocals steeped in echo, watery atmospheres, gleeful or apprehensive exclamations — you know the sound. It wasn't terribly unique, but something about it worked, and people noticed. Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes heard an EP and invited the group to tour with his band of Athens, Ga., weirdos. Painted Palms had a month to figure out how to perform live.
In January 2013, Prudhomme finally moved out to San Francisco. Before starting work on their first album, the two spent a few months just experimenting, trying to hone their skills. This kind of music Painted Palms and so many others make usually evolves in one of two directions: toward the dancefloor, and those longer, less-structured compositions that consist of beats arriving and departing, or toward more traditional songwriting, with all the elements mentioned above. Someone like Chaz Bundick, for example, releases his song-focused music as Toro y Moi, and gets his club-thumping ya-yas out under his Les Sins moniker. Painted Palms' goal was to combine the endless sonic potential of contemporary gear like samplers and synths with the endearing pull of classic, trippy pop-rock — a "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" for the Ableton Live era, if you will.
It was the riskier route to take, but also the potentially more rewarding one. Songs, after all, have a peculiar staying power that tends to defy fashion. Imagine how many different kinds of clothing stores "Heart of Gold" or "Brown Sugar" have played in. Think of Don Henley's terribly effective and utterly uncool "Boys of Summer," which still gets played on the radio, and probably even in Urban Outfitters. Even goofy good songs last.
Painted Palms aren't in the same ballpark as Neil, or the Stones, or even Don Henley. But at least they're playing the same game, imparting strong feelings in most of Forever's 12 tracks. "Hypnotic" bounces through samples of sitar and piano, lyrics echoing through a hall of mirrors until the echoes coalesce into a beat — a "Tomorrow Never Knows" for the age of Delorean and Yeasayer. "Too High" is a loping, lysergic overload, with giddy textures fluttering around a simple, driving structure. It's less about taking too many drugs than the experience of feeling more feelings than words can express. The title track assumes a darker tint, ominous drum rolls building into a descending chorus of synthy storm clouds and some of the most unadorned, evil-sounding guitar on the album; it asks, what should we do forever? You hear tricks throughout the album borrowed from the titans of this style — the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Zombies — but always submerged beneath layers of electronic effects, and bearing that distinctly early-adult emotional mix of fear, wonder, and self-doubt. (Donohue is 27; Prudhomme is 24.)
Sometimes it's hard to say whether the melodies or the beats win out on Forever. The band performs with a drummer live and, Prudhomme says, emphasizes its dancey aspects in order to make its shows more of a party. But most of the songs on Painted Palms' debut album shouldn't need much rejiggering. They have presence, texture, and hooks. They linger in your mind. They'll go a long way toward making those corporate halls of cool-hawking hospitable.