Cameron Bird tries to remember how Architecture in Helsinki came to sound so violently poppy: "I attribute the birth of our sound to our live audiences. We started out playing super-quiet, and people just talked over it. So we just went more in the direction of, you can't stand in this room and not listen to us." The bandleader's contagiously happy 2004 debut Fingers Crossed and 2005 follow-up In Case We Die made every effort to fill each nook and crevice with noise, never letting a gap pass without horns and strings to fill it and never dropping an opportunity to max out a crescendo. But the Australian eight-piece was always sufficiently ahead of the melodic curve -- let's call them avant-pop -- it was never a problem that restraint wasn't in their arsenal.
Places Like This, the band's newest release, not only discovers the world of moderation, but also finds Bird looking to his darker and coarser side, even sharpening his voice to lay down more caustic tunes. "A lot of people would love our old records and hate this one," he admits during an Amsterdam soundcheck. "For people who perceived us as being rainbows and sunshine... this might as well be hardcore techno for them." In reality, think Talking Heads '77 with a chorus of parakeets in the studio.
The record's first single, "Heart It Races," is a reminder of the good old days: One of the first tracks penned for Places Like This, the afro-beat, steel-drummed, all-gaps-filled song is the only one that would fit on AiH's early efforts. But it's also a cautionary tale about the dangers of adrenaline, an important parable for a band that's learning how to both simplify and look for the dark corners of their sound. In the song, a racing heart is a hot potato that can evidently be traded openly: "I sold it to a man/ Threw him out the window/ Made his wife a widow."
Bird wrote the material for the record last summer after moving to New York, his first relocation from Australia. The quick-draw songwriter cut 35 numbers in one stretch, and later worked over email with his bandmates -- still Down Under -- to whittle them down to 10. Harsh songs like "Feather In a Baseball Cap" wouldn't be out of place on David Bowie's under-sung Scary Monsters. Bird says those creepier sounds were "kind of imperative," and arose when he was "delirious and hadn't smoked for days."
The album's finest moment may be "Nothing's Wrong," a song that could've put the B-52s out of business if they'd still been active. All small bursts of guitar and suspenseful drums, much is actually wrong in the paean to social awkwardness, as at the verge of romantic success the narrator deflates, "Nothing in this whole wide world/ Saves us from this situation." It's the closest the band has ever come to holding its tongue, and the song is more articulate because it waits until its final minute to climax.
New York itself played importantly as a character in the Aussie's transition. "Like It or Not," a track about mistaken love signals, reveals what may be the dizzying source of its confusion: "Let me tell you something about New York, baby: It's hot!" Indeed, Bird says his first stateside apartment "was above a laundromat. It was 100 degrees outside and 150 in. I had two A/Cs going and you could still fry an egg on the floor. It just embodied New York in the summer." But he's thrilled to be in the borderline-dysfunctional Big Apple anyway: "Every city has amazing things, but there's something different about New York: It shouldn't work and yet it does."
The singer has come a long way from the days of the Pixel Mittens, his first band, which was "equal parts performance art and grunge and Primus. One show had an aerobics theme; people would be lifting weights in exercise gear while we played grunge songs. It was horrendous." But the modern-day Bird hasn't lost any of his fun: When approached to do a live performance in the nighttime streets of Paris -- part of the "Concert a Emporter" series -- the band created a Bar Mitzvah party-style show, playing "Like It or Not" in a snaking conga line, and finishing in a club decked out for their arrival.
The band how has enough marquee to headline Irving Plaza, and Bird is pleased to report that many of his bandmates -- who he may yet convince to move to the big city -- have been able to quit their day jobs and focus on Architecture in Helsinki fulltime. But they're not calling up Corcoran just yet: "We're still eating bread and water."