“I wanna be a part of it / New York, New York.”
When Fred Ebb wrote those lines of “Theme from New York, New York,” a song originally performed by Liza Minnelli in 1977, he captured an aspirational spirit that would cling to the city for decades. Frank Sinatra’s version, released three years later, would achieve icon status; it has, for all its schmaltz, become the standard by which all subsequent high-gloss New York anthems (those of Jay-Z, T-Swift, etc.) have been judged.
Aaron Maine, the Manhattan-based songwriter who fronts Porches, has not set out to write the next great New York City pop song. But without a careful read, one might take “Be Apart” as such an attempt. The single, which appears on Porches’ latest album “Pool,” nods toward Sinatra’s song in the chorus: “I wanna be apart / of it all,” Maine intones (italics mine). It sounds like he is quoting Ebbs’ line verbatim, but the song’s title makes its divergent significance clear: Whatever this city is offering at the moment of utterance, Maine’s speaker wants no part of it.
In fact, Maine is getting at something like the antithesis of “New York, New York” — he stares into the void-like urban landscape and yearns for an impossible escape. Barring that, he reasons, he might as well dance. Bearing the title in mind, the song transforms into something like Joy Division’s “Transmission,” the uncanny, nightmarish photonegative of a dance-pop hit. “And now my body moves,” he sings, as though outside himself. “It is so physical.”
In the unprecedented wake of the coverage that Porches has received for this LP, its first for Domino Records, some critics have noted the Sinatra reference but few have followed further the thematic through line that it establishes. At its core, “Pool” is an album that deals with two related dichotomies: sincerity and irony on the one hand, and partnership and solitude on the other. This minor Manichean struggle plays out within a cold, synthetic musical framework of analog keyboards, programmed drums and digitally manipulated vocals, with only occasional suggestions of the “rock” sound that characterized Porches’ last record, 2013’s “Slow Dance in the Cosmos.”
The fatalistic, agoraphobic “Be Apart” ultimately falls into the thematic camp of irony and solitude, but its referential chorus engenders a sense of ambiguity. As indicated by the distortion of his rich, emotive vocals on tracks such as the initially spare “Pool,” Maine seems intent on alienating the listener — or at least on keeping him or her at a distance. This may be an attempt to recreate, on his own sonic and lyrical terms, the sense of alienation that his speaker feels. The semi-autobiographical character Ronald Paris is an avowedly “authentic” songwriter trying to succeed in a perhaps not entirely authentic musical landscape and a “going-out” culture that demands his body and brain, if not quite his soul. “I let it have me all,” he admits, again on “Be Apart.”
To counter this sense of powerlessness, Maine experiments not only with self-medication, as in “Underwater,” but also with self-mediation. One of the most otherwise straightforward pop songs on the record, “Braid,” features a chorus in which Maine’s speaker describes a night on the town: “It was as if I was watching it / All through a video camera.” Maine’s lyric conveys both the apparent preciousness of his speaker’s experience — the yearning to record and thus preserve it — but also its curious abstractness, its not-quite-reality. Maine’s social media presence feels this way, too, halfway ironic but somehow alluring, like an iPhone photo filtered through the VHS Camcorder app.
A listener unfamiliar with Maine’s rich discography would be forgiven for taking “Pool,” with its self-consciously slick arrangements and occasionally flat lyrics, as so much style over substance. But Porches’ music situates itself within a broad aesthetic and lyrical mythology, and it’s only in this context that “Pool” can be fully appreciated. Sure, these songs could have turned out like those on “Slow Dance,” all howling vocals and blaring guitars, but that would belie their contextual heritage. Indeed, attendees of 2013’s “Ante-Fling” concert will remember hearing some of these tracks in their full-band format, and although Porches was easily the best band on stage that night, the aesthetic of “Pool” feels better suited to an empty studio apartment than a sweaty rock club. If “Slow Dance” were the sound of an aspiring group vaulting for the stratosphere, Pool is a delicate sound wave bleeped earthward from the fringe of space. There’s a sense of sadness, fragility and, ultimately, humility here that “Slow Dance” couldn’t have afforded to risk.
And yet, each album ends with a variation on the same sentiment: the fundamental necessity of love. In “The Cosmos,” a song from “Slow Dance,” the figure of Maine’s girlfriend and sometime-bandmate Greta Kline (a.k.a. Frankie Cosmos) served as a kind of indie-rock Beatrice, a woman who, through her love, would guide Maine’s speaker toward transcendence. On “Pool”’s closing track, “Security,” the terms are more mundane, but the stakes are higher than ever: “All I want / and all I need,” Maine sings, finally unmasked, “is some security.”
Given the album’s emotional flux, its careening between poles of irony and sincerity and its generally antiseptic vibe, it’s refreshing that “Pool” ends on such an open-hearted note. But even here, there’s a hint of ambiguity — as he pines for stasis, Maine’s voice trembles through its filter.