Album Review: Exitmusic – Passage

[Secretly Canadian; 2012]

When you’re in two different forms of artistic media, there’s a chance that one may be more recognizable than the other. In the case of Aleksa Palladino, she’s more known for playing Angela Darmody on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire than being the vocalist/keyboardist in the Brooklyn-based Exitmusic. But with a debut full-length in Passage, it won’t be long before she gains more recognition as a musician than as an actress.

Exitmusic was formed in 2003 by Palladino and her husband, guitarist Devon Church. The duo then released their four-track EP entitled From Silence in 2011 that eventually led to a record deal with Secretly Canadian for the release of the much-anticipated Passage.

On a deeper and careful listen of Passage, you begin to notice that there’s a sense of romanticism within the course of the 10 tracks. It’s romantic in a way that the lyrics explore the idea of human introspection and nature, while their take on the dream-pop/shoegaze genre is darker and almost supernatural. The eponymous title track begins the album with a delicate piano that patiently builds tension with faint vocal melodies lurk in the background. Soon after, Palladino’s soaring vocals meet with the swirling guitar and crashing drums at a point of pure sonic bliss.

Dream-pop seems to be a convoluted genre and it doesn’t help that Beach House has cornered the market (especially with the release of Bloom), so other acts that are associated with that term tend to be written off rather quickly. But what sets Exitmusic apart is that they’re not afraid to break loose and be aggressive, as evidenced on the bipolar “The City” where the chorus is an unexpected storm comprised of Radiohead-esque guitar chords and thundering percussion. The closest that they get to Beach House is on “The Night” where Palladino’s eerie “hoo-hoo” melodies and Church’s guitar-produced wall-of-sound are eerily similar to Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally, respectively.

One of the main attractions in Passage is the versatility of Palladino’s seductive and ethereal vocals that add to the theatricality and drama that the album exudes. On “White Noise,” she sings with a chilling vibrato akin to Zola Jesus, while on “The Cold” her alto can meander between Katie Stelmanis (Austra) and Florence Welch. The vocal style isn’t the only aspect that displays versatility, but also the music style. Electronic elements are incorporated on the nature-titled tracks “Storms” and “Stars” where the subtle beats create a pulsating rhythm that’s lined with ambient soundscape. The somber-filled “The Wanting” is a minimalist number that features a droning piano and soft, soothing howls that create a hypnotizing effect reminiscent of Sigur rós.

Lyrically, Palladino is a highly capable songwriter with a knack for creating beauty out of sorrow. The change-of-pace and upbeat “This Modern Age” (a carry-over from their previous EP) discusses being out of sync and out of place with time: “The hours dine on the vine/ We’re drifting slowly in station/ And we never align/ Leaving home all the same/ Waited so long for saving/ But it never arrived.” In closer “Sparks of Light,” Palladino moans about restrained optimism in a seemingly hopeless time: “We are all sparks of light/ But we hide it.”

With Passage, Exitmusic has turned in one of the more ambition, evocative, and engaging efforts of 2012. The term “exit music” is a term that describes the music that closes out a film. But this isn’t the only attribute that makes this album cinematic. Rather, it’s the ability to take you on an emotional journey from beginning to end through a melodramatic narrative and a lush backdrop created by the transcendent music.