Passion Pit’s EP redefines tired pop genre

About a month ago while poking around on TheFader.com, I heard a copy of Passion Pit’s debut single, “Sleepyhead.” It blew me away.

The track opens with a sample of a Jack Kerouac spoken word piece (“and everything is going to the beat”) and launches into a heavy four-on-the-floor beat that perfectly cradles a sped-up sample of a woman singing, somehow simultaneously seeming chipmunkish and angelic.
The percussion is loose and organic – it relies on its minimalism for power and, in the place of more typical house instrumentation, features various clanks and dins that rapidly decay in pitch. When the lead vocals on each verse are introduced, the drum track strips down to naked hand claps, exposing singer and producer Michael Angelakos’ gloriously strained falsetto that nestles in a bed of bell arpeggios.

When the chorus comes in, Angelakos hits us with an epic lead synthesizer that bends and rollicks into the next verse. Written as a belated Valentine’s Day present for his girlfriend, “Sleepyhead” feels at once familiar in its sweet melodies and lyrics, yet strange in its bold and unconventional production choices. It’s the type of experimental pop song that forces you out of your aural comfort zone, only to leave you thinking in retrospect about how boring that comfort zone actually was.

Passion Pit belongs to the cadre of new bands (e.g. Hot Chip, Starf**ker, Gang Gang Dance) who bring high-end, experimental production techniques and knowledge of vintage synthesizers into the creation of their bizarre takes on pop.

Charting Angelakos’ influences would be an exercise in folly, but I like to think of the style as picking up where artists like Brian Eno left off in the 70s. Except, while Eno often alternated between conventional rock song structure and open-feeling ambient pieces, Passion Pit and some of the other groups listed above dabble in energetic house and disco forms.

Most of the tracks on their newest EP, Chunk of Change, are upbeat and propel listeners forward with simple and powerful dance grooves, sprinkled with atypical percussive elements similar to those heard in “Sleepyhead.” Throughout the EP, Angelakos manages to surprise with both a diverse and delightful palate of complimentary synthesizers and his odd vocal tones.

Though on cursory inspection his lyrics might seem a little trite (“you’re the best damn friend that I’ll ever have/you always smile on me when the season’s bad/ you’ll always make me feel best even when I’m blue/you’ll always smile upon me and I’ll smile upon you too”), the gestalt of the songs makes them work nonetheless.

The EP has numerous moments so candidly sweet that you can’t help but grin, like when a young boy speaks into a distorted microphone on the intro of penultimate track “Better Things:” “That was our fifth song and I hope you enjoyed it. Now this will be our best song that you have ever heard – The dirt bike is going on stage.” This vocal snippet is indicative of the pleasures of Passion Pit – cute, fun and decidedly eccentric.