Celestial Electric, the first collaboration between L.A.-based singer-songwriter AM and multi-instrumentalist/producer Shawn Lee, is an ambitious and idiosyncratic album created by and continuously refined through e-mail, yet the sonic frame of reference is strictly pre-Gmail. Using all the modern technological tools at its disposal, the pair has created a densely layered, carefully curated and occasionally moving paean to the past, specifically the warped global-psych-rock of the ’60s and smooth singer-songwriters of the ’70s.
This type of zip-filed nostalgia is not particularly rare or new, but what makes this meeting of the minds work better than other collaborative vanity projects is the way these two artists’ sensibilities flow seamlessly into one another, erasing any sense of the cut-and-pasting that brought the album to life. AM and Lee are obviously fans of each other, and fandom can be infectious.
Their mutual affection actually began with a piece of outdated technology: the radio. Having heard bits of Lee’s Music And Rhythm album in his car, AM began an Internet pen-pal friendship with the multi-instrumentalist, who has not only recorded multiple albums under his own name but also written soundtracks for films and videogames. Lee’s ability to whip up a soundscape becomes apparent on Celestial Electric, which fuses lush Tropicalia beats with playful acid flare-ups and spacey, rattling drum-fills. The mannered eclecticism at work here is akin to Broken Bells, the more high-profile project between James Mercer of the Shins and Danger Mouse.
Tracks like “Dark Into Light” use menacing John Carpenter synths to create a sense of dread before the ethereal chorus brightens the mood, making the case for hope—or at least good times—in the midst of moral nihilism. The romantic “Somebody Like You” sneaks up on you with its slinky synths and yearning lyrics; “I Didn’t Really Listen” mixes banjo and harmonica with countless electronic effects to create a simmering pool of regret, like a less bummed-out version of Beck’s Sea Change.
At times the production threatens to swallow the song-writing, making certain songs feel like little tonal experiments instead of fully formed tracks; AM’s whispering vocals can get lost amidst the flickering lights. Beginning with some menacing backward-looped drumming, the tepid “Different Forces” finds AM flirting with easy-listening crooning and New Age mumbo jumbo. His high-pitched backing vocals are the most compelling part of a song that never discovers a sense of urgency among the twitchy recording tics, like a soft Spanish acoustic guitar lick creeping in toward the end—an effect that feels dropped in from another song. By contrast, the next song, “Jackie Blue,” works up a rich, sexy lather through a propulsive piano, a chugging guitar riff and AM’s suggestive delivery. When the song comes to a close, you’re left wanting to share it with a friend. Maybe send an e-mail? It worked for these guys.