When Joel Ford of Tigercity and Oneohtrix Point Never architect Daniel Lopatin teamed to form Games last year, it was an intriguing pairing from the outset. Tigercity’s straight-ahead funk-pop seemed diametrically opposed to Oneohtrix Point Never’s texture-heavy soundscapes, and while the duo’s debut EP, That We Can Play, suggested a more vintage take on Ford’s native style, it also held the subtle promise of two musicians building a framework for more ambitious songwriting to come. Now known simply as Ford And Lopatin, the group’s debut full-length, Channel Pressure, makes good on that promise, masterfully hitting pop pleasure centers with just the right amount of weirdness bubbling under the surface.
Unlike the crowd-pleasing dance pop of Chromeo or even Cut Copy, Channel Pressure asks to be accepted on its own terms. Mostly mid-tempo and created primarily with vintage equipment, it harkens back to blown-out electronic hits of the early ’80s, so much so that its songs could have ended up as simple nostalgia in lesser hands. But Ford And Lopatin pulls off a rare trick by injecting enough hints of the avant-garde that Channel Pressure sounds uniquely unfamiliar and retro all at once, scarcely repeating the same change-ups twice. This tightrope walk between pop songcraft and the surreal creates some undeniable earworms; “Joey Rogers” marries Hall And Oates-style soul with chopped-up synthesizer scrapes and guitars ricocheting across the stereo field, and first single “Emergency Room” could soundtrack an old public service announcement if not for the atonal shock waiting in its instrumental break. It’s clear Ford And Lopatin has a gift for sleight of hand with its arrangements, and even though Prefuse 73′s mix helps every piece stand out, its seemingly perfect balance is a product of the players’ willingness to push listeners’ boundaries within recognizable song structures.
Channel Pressure‘s first half is one gigantic slam dunk after another, but in fairness, some flaws begin to show as the album winds down. Ford And Lopatin’s wild experimental streak starts to get compartmentalized into brief instrumentals, producing a difficult chain reaction: As the songs around them get simpler, the record starts to suffer from bloat. Although Channel Pressure is supposedly a concept record, it’s hard to accept that its concept would be handicapped were it to end right after the Babyface-recalling slow jam “Break Inside,” a late-record highlight. But even this fatigue is indicative of Ford And Lopatin’s successes, as it seems 10 tracks weren’t quite enough to contain all of the ideas concocted for the album.
Unusual in being both instantly accessible to casual listeners and aimed at electronic aficionados, the full scope of what Ford And Lopatin has done with Channel Pressure will take a lot of repeated listening to appreciate. The group’s success in making something this retro-sounding with such a stylistically cutting-edge approach deserves to win over dance crowds and convert outsiders, and its relative lack of club bangers is a welcome change of pace from a recently popular emphasis on volume. Deeply rewarding and slyly addictive, Channel Pressure is an uncommon gem, a difficult record that really isn’t difficult at all.