Sunset Hearts' bright laments

The bones of you
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  September 28, 2011

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JOYOUS DIVISION Sunset Hearts make the most of conceptual contrast.

There's something we respond to in the juxtaposition, the pairing of sweet and sour, dark humor, vulnerable heroes. And, of course, opposites attract.

Sunset Hearts seem to revel in these pairings more than most. On their debut album, Inside the Haunted Cloud, the nine-piece dance pop band continually explore the creation of digital sounds by organic means, dark themes illuminated by bright melodies, crooning vocals supported by layers upon layers of percussion. Even this idea of Sunset Hearts: At once both calling up the romantic notions of where nightfall leads and the end of love.

And maybe even bringing to mind that question Magnolia Electric Co. classically framed: "What comes after the dark?"

Considering the collection of musicians gathered here, these contrasting themes, these layers of sound and meaning, shouldn't be surprising. Vocalist Casey McCurry is the band's center, his voice nearly omnipresent, and the songs take on much of the creative sensibility many of us enjoyed in his last project, Satellite Lot, which never quite found its footing as a performing band, but put out two excellent records (the better of which was the debut Second Summer, what I considered to be the best local record of 2005). Satellite Lot teammate Aaron Hautala is here, too, lending some songwriting help on a couple of tracks.

Then there are the Sunset members from many other of Portland's better bands: It's Jesse Hautala (of An Evening With/Elf Princess Gets a Harley) who plays the bright and cycling synths here, teaming with Elf Princess bandmate Brandon Davis and Marie Stella's Matthew Erickson on guitars to create lush melodic beds. And drummer Max Heinz from Marie Stella/Hi Tiger combines with percussionist Mike Cunnane of the Rattlesnakes/Huak to create a driving, danceable backbeat on just about every track.

These two contrasting forces — the digital flights of the keyboards and guitars whirling around the organic cowbells, snares, kick drums and handclaps of the percussion — are the central tension of what is a dramatic and intriguing album.

They hit their apex with the record's midpoint, the bright reveling in melancholy that is "Moments in Motion," which contains what has to be the best chorus of the year so far, McCurry and his sister Sadie in sunshiney lockstep: "And it's wrong, that we should be apart/We're separated by a couple oceans."

I just love the impossibility of that. Not just one ocean, but a couple. We're not just sad about it. It's actually wrong. "We can't synthesize emotions when we need them" because "we were born hand in hand" and now we're separated. It's utterly devastating. And yet they manage. (This is only made slightly creepy by the fact that it's a brother and sister singing. Let's just not think about that part. Wait — is George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series ubiquitous enough to make a Jaime and Cersei Lannister reference here?)

Sure, it's angsty relationship stuff, but it's just so well done.

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