Under the aegis of producer Zeno Gill, the North Elementary lineup that frontman John Harrison assembled for Berandals—the band's debut EP on Pox World Empire—is the best, most cohesive outfit yet in the band's revolving-door history: Over the past five years, North Elementary has been a plug-and-play act, with members filling in as time and Harrison's taste permitted. Harrison's steady development as a songwriter and sonic aesthete has suffered under such mercury, though, his best work often being out of step with the fidelity of his band at the moment. The results have been recordings and live sets that missed the mark—but just barely—on several fronts. Here—with drummer Kuki Kooks, keyboardist Holly Baranski and bassist Masanao Sato collaborating well—he's closer than he's ever been to having a band that sees the same vision.
Loosely, Harrison is interested in pushing pop songs to outer-orbit heights through layers of production, much like several bands that famed producer Dave Fridmann has worked with (The Flaming Lips, Sparklehorse, The Delgados), and this incarnation of North Elementary seems especially well equipped for that: Baranski, whose contributions to the disc are especially intriguing, pits a loping keyboard fill beneath Jeff Herrick's bright, multi-tracked horn fanfare on "Unplug the Girl," making the whole thing bloom. And, on "Lovesday Dead Down," the smartest track here, the band braids glitchy electronics with grinding guitars and a springing piano, letting it all launch into a hand-clap jangle reminiscent of the Moor laptop-pop composers. It's perhaps the best moment Harrison, as a growing bandleader, has had.
At this point, Harrison's biggest hurdle remains settling into the pocket and singing his way through his elliptical poetry like he means it. Too often, Harrison acts uncomfortable with the microphone, lending a pop-punk vocal unease to would-be anthems. His sonic scope isn't nearly as lo-fi or died-in-the-wool D.I.Y. as such hesitance would suggest, and his reluctance to settle down and simply sing out prevents good moments from becoming great. On "Your Lights are Turning," his phrasings are awkward, never finding an appropriate tone given the rest of the band's textural playing. Such unease is certainly understandable, though: Harrison's been going at this as the band's sole staple for a while now, and he continues to make himself a better composer, arranger and musician, despite the heavy-handed Wilco nod ("Theologians") on the first track or The Flaming Lips homage ("The Observer") by way of a gorgeous instrumental outro. Still, if this is a new start for an old band, Berandals warrants plenty of expectation.
North Elementary plays Local 506 with Schooner and *SONS Friday, May 18, at 10 p.m.