Listening to Chemical Friends is the aural equivalent of receiving a full-body massage outdoors at twilight in a gently pulsing mid-summer shower while R2-D2 recites Shakespearean sonnets to you in his unintelligible but comforting robotic chirp. San Francisco-based Nyles Lannon (who thought it would be pretty cool to see his first initial in lower-case) has taken a break from his slowcore band, Film School, in order to record the most depressingly gorgeous album since Elliott Smith’s Either/Or. The Smith comparison is a fairly obvious one and doesn’t require a press release to figure out, but there’s a confessional tenor to Lannon’s songwriting here that necessitates a measure of vocal restraint. Fortunately, his voice attains the gossamer pre-dawn quality of Sam Beam’s without veering into the coffeehouse kitsch of Ben Gibbard’s girlish yelp.
Constructed from the ground up, Chemical Friends’ abundance of robust, finger-picked acoustic guitar lines provide most of the sonic foundation while subtle electronic effects glisten, whirr, scratch, pop, whiz or sigh in a trancey New Age euphoria. I can’t say exactly when it happened but, somewhere along the way, practitioners of electronic music (Lannon dodges the bullet here) bought into the filthy lie that a conglomeration of individually cool sounds must guarantee an exponentially cooler album. The math seems to work. But if you wrap all your pretty blinking colored lights around the naked branches of a Douglas fir’s cadaver, your toddler is still going to bawl when she scampers downstairs on Christmas morning.
There’s gotta be a song underneath. If there’s no song, if you’re just indulging a noodling fetish, close the lid on your PowerBook this second and go put in an application at Starbucks. Especially if you live in the Bay Area. Because I have a feeling my friend Nyles will be showing up to order a double espresso from you when he’s staying up all night working on his next ambient masterpiece. And—look at me when I’m talking to you—you better straighten out your forest-green apron and pass it across the counter with a smile, dammit, or I’ll have a word with your manager.