PHOTO BY GEORGE GANNALO
When songwriter and producer Peter Riley's indie-rock outfit finally crashed and burned, as low profile indie-rock outfits toiling thanklessly on the New York City circuit are wont to do, he knew one thing: he was sick of guitars.
More precisely, he was sick of what often comes with guitars, and rock bands in general--the limited sonic palette, the head-in-the-sand attitude toward technology, the bludgeoning volume masquerading as power. So with the fresh wreckage of his latest project smoldering around him, rather than a disaster he saw an opportunity--and circled back to his musical beginnings to seize it.
To start from scratch Riley would turn to a medium he actually knew his way around: electronics. As the teenage frontman for cult technopop act Joy Machine, whose mid-90's homemade basement tapes would wind up finding new life years later on the internet, he was no stranger to drum machines and synthesizers. Neither was the rest of the listening public, of course--electroclash had since flourished and withered, dance music had decisively won the war around the world, and every bedroom producer worth his salt was busy dusting off his vintage Casio and Dr. Rhythm for a bite at the new pop apple.
But Riley's approach would be more considered: rather than recycling voguish sounds of the past straight from the box, he saw electronics more as a tool with which to harness any given musical vision--to sculpt something unique in the manner of shapeshifting influences like Depeche Mode and Goldfrapp. An intensive period of experimental woodshedding would follow. And because one is the loneliest number when it comes to making records (and an particularly uncomfortable one when it comes to performing live) he knew who he needed to invite aboard: multi-instrumentalist from said defunct indie band (and childhood compatriot) Michael Parkin .
Parkin would prove instrumental in nudging the material into tougher territory, with synths run through distortion pedals, a fuzzed-up P-Bass added to the mix, and occasionally, the return of those jettisoned guitars, often processed beyond recognition. Rather than be suffocated by the hermetically-sealed world of recording, the pair took to the rehearsal room and thrashed through the material live, improvising and applying what they'd learned from the stage, slowly amplifying Riley's initial pop vision into something with real teeth. And so The Dossier, and Strange Arrangements, was born.
"The album title's got a few different connotations," says Riley. "It's a snatch of lyric from 'Give Me Your Name', but it's also a nod to ABC's tune 'The Look of Love', from which it was humbly borrowed--and it most certainly references the liberating feeling of throwing away our own map."
For all its wealth of sonics and varied musical landscapes, one element of Strange Arrangements is hardly new: the record is chock full of iron-clad, melodic songwriting and smart, heartfelt lyrics. It's a combination that makes one online description of The Dossier sound entirely apropos: Cole Porter gene-spliced with Kraftwerk.
The album itself is an epic journey: from the thunderous, eastern-influenced Sunrise to the desperation disco of Another Night, Another Day; the rebel glam stomp of Tramps Like Us to the jubilant, throwaway confection of Nobody Does This Better; the haunted, string-drenched melancholia of Dying Horses to the sinister, sinuous Give Me Your Name; the goosestep doo-wop of Hotblooded to the heady, Broadway-esque rush of If You're In My City; and the triumphant rooftop declaration of Limb From Limb to the cry in the night of Let Your Heart Speak My Name--Strange Arrangements is a masterpiece of DIY pop that simultaneously looks both backward and forward, a marriage of timeless songcraft and contemporary musical experiments at the margins.
“It was a bit like learning a new language,” says Riley. “You’re just finding a fresh way of expressing the things that never really change.”