Graded on a Curve: Telekinesis, Dormarion

Up to this point, the music of Michael Benjamin Lerner, who records under the moniker Telekinesis, has been undone by a tendency to divert from the artist’s strengths. Dormarion is no exception, but the good news is that Lerner’s getting better. The bad news is that when he steps wrong, those questionable decisions are amplified by his very progress.

The self-titled (with an exclamation point) Chris Walla-produced 2009 debut from Telekinesis, specifically the 11-song incarnation of the record that was released by Merge Records, was a promising debut frustrated by inconsistency. Michael Benjamin Lerner’s best asset on the LP was the rocking side of his mainstream indie sound; less effective were the occasional stabs at diversifying the record’s sonic landscape either through acoustic numbers, two of which telegraphed their maneuvers into a broader instrumental palate, or in the case of “Calling All Doctors,” a late-album excursion into unexceptional piano-driven indie moodiness.

That record’s follow-up, the 2010 EP “Parallel Seismic Conspiracies” remains the best single Telekinesis release; five songs, two covers (an agreeable “Game of Pricks” from Guided by Voices and a really swell take on “The Drawback” from Warsaw, they who were soon to be Joy Division) and all of it presenting variations on Lerner’s more rocking side.

But that tidy release was most notable for a successful transformation of “Calling All Doctors;” what once felt anemic was given a transfusion via a sound that at least resembled a full band. In vacating the first version’s underwhelming atmosphere of emotional fragility for the second’s energetic velocity, things boded well for Lerner’s project.

2011’s second full-length 12 Desperate Straight Lines was largely an improvement on Telekinesis! On the majority of the record, Lerner dived right into the mainstream indie sensibility that provided the best moments on his debut, with those gestures toward rocking helping to obscure his limitations as a songwriter.

To be fair, Lerner is pleasantly serviceable in his development of tune, but it was abundantly clear on 12 Desperate Straight Lines that he was working in (and not transcending) a recently established tradition, though a firm case can be made that he’s more interested in the realms of classic pop-rock than the average indie-come-lately. And at least when he’s shooting for a full-bodied sound the shortcomings of the lyrics are easier to digest and the overall familiarity of his songs registers, to crib a term from the late Andrew Sarris, as lightly likable.

But 12 Desperate Straight Lines also offered a few nagging moments of predictability. It became clear that Lerner really likes that acoustic-into-full-band shift. I mean, he really REALLY likes it; thankfully on this record it felt less obvious, but it also signaled that his arsenal wasn’t brimming with that many options. At least when he returns to the well on 12 Desperate Straight Lines it comes late in the order, at track nine, and is a solid tune besides.

Predictability isn’t a damning trait. To wit; the new Telekinesis record Dormarion again opens acoustically, and again it’s a harbinger of full-band things to come, but it’s also the best opening cut he’s come up with yet. So it doesn’t really matter (at least very much) that the progression of “Power Lines” can basically be sussed-out before it actually happens.

Pleasantly unexpected however, is the faux-bluesy aura that inhabits both the acoustic opening and the slam-bang riff-chunkiness that it foretells. Even with its keyboard seasoning, it’s more Arena-rock than indie, and for Lerner that ain’t a bad switch. And if “Empathetic People” toes closer to the genre that’s chiefly informed the man’s sound, it’s still nice to hear him giving it a good throttle.

While Chris Walla did right by Lerner on the prior Telekinesis records, it seems that making the change for Jim Eno was a really smart move. The Spoon drummer apparently steps behind the kit on some of Dormarion, and if that’s not him on “Empathetic People” (though I highly suspect that it is), his influence has been a positive one.

Because a song that pounds this heavily makes the words Lerner’s articulating matter even less. That might sound like a backhanded compliment, but emotional heft has never been the strong suit of Telekinesis. However, seriously rocking-out very well could be. And that possibility is what makes the first of Dormarion’s stylistic detours so disappointing.

“Ghost and Creatures” jumps with both feet into a sound that Telekinesis only flirted with on those prior full-length efforts, that being synth-pop. The problem isn’t that synth-pop is an inferior mode to the more rocking template in evidence here. It’s just that in synth-pop terms, Lerner is no great shakes.

The ambition for diversity is only really laudable when it produces positive results. Moreover, Dormarion’s first two salvos really get the blood pumping. Relenting a bit isn’t a bad strategy, but “Ghosts and Creatures” serves instead as a stalled-out engine. Nothing gets redirected, and what remains is the impression of Lerner self-sabotaging what he does best.

Thankfully, what he’s best at outnumbers by a slim margin the more questionable decisions on this album. “Wires” actually manages to retain a bit of that synth-pop vibe and with better results. Specifically, it sounds like New Order. It doesn’t sound like great New Order, but to be fair, Sumner, Morris and company haven’t sounded like great New Order for a few years now either.

What “Wires” gets right lies in its forcefulness. To bludgeon a point, Telekinesis works best when flaunting rhythmic drive, and while the song doesn’t have that in spades, it does successfully reenergize the album. “Lean On Me” detours again, but to more fruitful effect, landing in a guitar-pop zone of decidedly sunshiny disposition.

And it’s here that Telekinesis’ association with Merge becomes abundantly clear. Part of the label’s history has been devoted to rock’s more classicist side (think Imperial Teen, Crooked Fingers, M. Ward, and even Superchunk), and “Lean On Me” fits that sweet-spot like spandex.

It was only a matter of time before the proceedings took a turn for the acoustic, and “Symphony” is the culprit. But rather than eventually ramp it up as is his wont, the tune is simply three minutes of undistinguished soul-purge, delivering the record’s second major sputter.

It can almost feel like Lerner derails the LP just to show how effectively he can get it all back on track. “Dark to Light” achieves this task with aplomb (the bass playing is particularly fine), but it also ends too quickly. “Little Hill” returns to that Arena-rock zone with a big grouchy guitar riff, but “Ever True” falls right back into a synth-pop state of affairs.

The most important element in synth-pop occurs after the hyphen. As pop, it only really excels when the songs are first-rate (see early Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, or for something from this century, James Murphy). “Ever True” falls short of that level by a substantial margin, leaving the track to stand on its ambiance, an aspect that in this instance isn’t a bit praiseworthy.

“Island #4” is a song of two almost equal halves, the first building tension and the second providing release, and it works pretty well overall. “Laissez-faire” adds further strong rocking to the album’s sum, and closer “You Take It Slowly” heaps on the indie sound from whence Telekinesis sprang like a trowel, and ain’t bad for that.

Three full-length albums in, and the constant factor in Michael Benjamin Lerner’s work is that aforementioned quality of inconsistency. So as Telekinesis’ records get better, they also get more frustrating. But as Merge’s bio for Dormarion mentions, Lerner is just 26 years old. So it’s early yet. He’s got plenty of time to shake off his problematic ambitions and maybe even make a great LP or two.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C+

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