CD Review of Absence by Paper Route
Paper Route: Absence
Recommended if you like
Postal Service, Climber, Copeland
Label
Universal Motown/Sneak Attack
Paper Route: Absence

Reviewed by Neil Carver

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I
n the liner notes of Paper Route’s self-titled EP, Chad Howat, keyboardist, programmer and bass player for the group, wrote about the creation of the band. He tells of insomnia-driven writing sessions and a very organic creative process that brought together the members of the band over time and through some personally rough patches. The EP was a very solid piece of ambient, electronic indie pop that seemed to capture those hyper-lucid, late night moments of clarity where at least a small part of the world seems profound.

Two-plus years later, Paper Route is back with a full length debut, Absence, a collection of all brand new songs that shows the growth and expansion of the band’s music while never losing the nocturnal, dreamy quality that infused their earlier work. Band leader JT Daly talks about the band, saying, "This is our drug," and that spacey, buzzed feel is used to good effect throughout Absence. It provides an intimacy and connectedness to all 12 tracks that, paradoxically, grounds the album for the listener despite a varied and sometimes experimental set of songs.

That they open the record with "Enemy Among Us" is an interesting choice. It is a pure synth piece that implies a touch of paranoia and betrayal, as if the band suspects a traitor in its midst, but could also be a reflection our darker selves that serve to sabotage our relationships from within. Unfortunately, the song doesn’t do more than postulate before it is over. Then the album really opens up. "Wish" and "Carousel" allow drummer Gavin McDonald to push the tempo and pulse, leaving ambiance behind for some really energetic pop rock. Substitute some violin and cello for some of the electronic programming and "Wish" would fit marvelously on a Ra Ra Riot album. "Carousel" is clearly the big single, with the catchiest refrain that is a simile for a tired relationship caught in a rut.

Unfortunately, it is the wistfulness that can undermine the impact of the record. Daly and Andy Smith’s vocals are plaintive and restless, but fail to hit hard when they need to. All the songs taken together have the sense of a group of friends staying up late and discussing whatever comes to mind. Like so many of those kinds of conversations, though, the topics range about but no one subject is ever resolved before another arises. "Good Intentions" takes a touch of swing and feels like an old Blue Nile track from Hats, but quickly becomes repetitive and ultimately lacks the execution they are singing about.

Many of their tracks are like this. They start out well, hook you with nostalgic riffs, but never quite deliver. "Tiger Teeth" is a New New Wave piece that would sound completely appropriate falling between an Icehouse track and Midge Ure on an ‘80s mix. "Be Healed" is soulful and begs for a Terrence Trent D’arby sample. It is the first real hint at the spiritual leanings of the band. "No Sudden Revelations" has an intro right off of "Where the Streets Have No Name" and the listener might be surprised when the Edge’s distinctive guitar doesn’t appear. "Gutter" is a fascinating piece of Pretty Hate Machine-lite!, the only hint at edginess on the album. Sprinkled with Daft Punk-like modulated vocals, it would really work if it didn’t fade into programmed violins that just leave the listener hanging.

It turns out "Are We All Forgotten" has been touted by Rolling Stone as a Top Five pick. It is the song that feels most like their contemporaries, especially Postal Service. This isn’t to say it isn’t a wonderful track, though. It uses drum machines to great effect, layering jangling guitars that refuse to let the programmed melodies wash away. Hollow vocals cut through to hit the biggest emotional buttons, asking about both heartbreak and loss of faith. This song does follow through, making sure we understand that it is up to us answer the question, "What are you waiting for?"

Paper Route never escapes the difficult and bittersweet past that is clearly behind the songs on Absence, but there is a softly cathartic sensibility to the album. "Dance on Our Graves" is not the morose or self-deprecating ode it could have been, but instead touches strongly upon their church-going roots. "I need you now, more than ever before" could be a cry to a temporal love or something more heavenly. The church organ that leads into the heavily orchestrated finale is a nicely subtle hint about where they are leaning.

Ultimately, the album delivers a completeness that may be lacking on individual songs. This may not work in favor of Paper Route getting noticed in an era when you are only as good as your latest MySpace single, but it is rewarding to those who take the time to listen to it all. In the end, Absence fulfills.

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