Owen Pallett :: Pop’s Final Fantasy
Most people may know Canadian violinist and producer Owen Pallett as a member of the seminal indie rock band Arcade Fire. But I first discovered him about eight years ago when I came across a YouTube clip of him covering one of Mariah Carey’s most iconic songs, "Fantasy," by using a series of loops he made on the spot using hand claps, thumps and his trusty violin.
Back then, Pallett was performing under the moniker Final Fantasy, which shares the name with a popular role-playing video game franchise. It’s under that stage name that Pallett put out two stellar albums, including "He Poos Clouds," an album that took home the prestigious Polaris Music Prize in 2006. The record had a pretty big impact on me since I was a nerdy 18 year old and Pallett’s album referenced video games that I held near and dear to my heart, specifically Nintendo’s "The Legend of Zelda."
But I also connected with "He Poos Clouds" because of its subtle references to homosexuality, like on the title track. At 18, finding an album that can get down on your level with your interests and an internal struggle is priceless.
Then in 2008, Pallett announced that he would go forward with his solo music by using his real name. In 2010, he released the fantastic "Heartland" and he followed up that album last month with "In Conflict," which finds the musician creating some of his most accessible tunes while his unmistakable voice booms with some of his most personal lyrics.
On the x-rated "The Passions," Pallett sings about someone getting him off, while on "On A Path," he sings of confusion and where his life is headed. On opener "I Am Not Afraid," Pallett shouts "I’ll never have any children" at one point in a startling but real moment before cooing "I’m going to change my body / In the light and the shadow of suspicion." It’s these macro real moments that make his latest LP so appealing. "I Am Not Afraid" rolls on with a piano riff that rivals the beautiful "One Summer’s Day..." by Joe Hisaishi -- the theme for the 2001 Studio Ghibli Academy Award-winning film "Spirited Away."
The album also finds Pallett exploring sounds he’s only touched on in other efforts. Take the one-two-punch of the incredible "The Riverbed" and "Infernal Fantasy." Both tracks thrash with synths and visceral violin plucks, but Pallett’s voice crashes through the organized chaos and grabs you by the gut.
The final two tracks are also a huge crush. "Soldiers Rock" is devastating but performed with upbeat synths and violins as Pallett sings: "Pick up, pick up the bayonet and run it through, run it through the stomach of your brother." The last track on "In Conflict," "→" shows off Pallett’s finest violin abilities as he plays a haunting melody over sticky, melting synths. It’s a lyric-less track that clocks in under two minutes, but closes his LP fantastically, like the credits to a thriller with a cliff ending.
Pallett’s talents and abilities extend beyond his personal endeavors. Besides crafting four solid LPs and a handful of EPs, he’s also known for his work with the Grammy Award-winning indie band Arcade Fire, and is actually one of their most important members. He played violin and did the string arrangements on their breakthrough album "Funeral," as well as follow ups, "Neon Bible," "The Suburbs" and their latest LP "Refelktor." He’s also helped out other indie greats, including Grizzly Bear, Fucked Up, Beirut, Pet Shop Boys, The Mountain Goats, Diamond Rings, The National, Titus Andronicus, Franz Ferdinand and more.
Pallett’s credits don’t stop there; he’s also been recognized by mainstream music. He’s played violin and put together string arrangements for artists, including Mika, Duran Duran, R.E.M., Snow Patrol, Linkin Park and even Taylor Swift - masterminding the orchestral arrangements and being the conductor for her lovely single "The Last Time," which features Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol.
Beyond working with some of the most talented indie and mainstream artists currently making music, Pallett has reached other audiences - and his work has been noticed.
He and Win Butler, who leads Arcade Fire, were both nominated for Best Original Score at the 86th Academy Awards last year for their work on the breathtaking film, "Her," directed by Spike Jonze. Though they lost to Steven Price for "Gravity," it’s a beautiful soundtrack that breathed life into the already devastatingly emotional OS-love flick.
Working in the pop world is something Pallett doesn’t have any qualms about. In fact, he’s become somewhat popular for applying his knowledge of music theory to pop music, explaining why some of the best selling singles in the world are the best selling singles in the world.
In a recent Buzzfeed article, he points out why Beyonce’s epic "Drunk in Love," Haim’s funked jams, Ariana Grande’s unstoppable "Problem," the inescapable trap anthem "Turn Down For What" and Usher’s latest single are outstanding pieces of music. You can read the entire piece here, but hereis what he said about "Drunk in Love":
"’I’ve been drinking’ is my favorite admission in a lyric. The musical experience should not be about vague notions like ’flying to the moon and back’ or ’I need you and / I love you.’ Love songs need some alcohol content in order to be effective," Pallett says. "Do you notice the sparseness of the rhythmic material on this first verse? Nothing hitting hard except the kicks and snaps. It emphasizes Beyoncé’s excellent elocution, her voice is the real rhythm section. It sounds like she’s spitting verse more than singing. It’ll make that offbeat ’surfbort’ breakdown later seem all the more hilarious and ’drunk.’ It even makes Jay Z’s spitting, as tight as it is, sound comparatively lazy."
He thoroughly details his own music - "The Riverbed," and explains why it’s one of the best tracks on "In Conflict." Unsparingly, he’s using the same method that drew me in when I saw his "Fantasy" cover nearly a decade ago:
"Well, I like drum beats that never change. I like droning, repeated open fifths, a lot," Pallett says. "This song’s first and second verse stick with that fifth, I sing nothing else. The bass doesn’t leave the E-flat root. Like almost all my songs, this is a looped song, and as the violins layer themselves up, chords start to take shape."