Review: Inventions – “Continuous Portrait”

After some laughter, the song “Hints and Omens” begins with a swirling sci-fi refrain, a keyboard-pulsing “space-themed” trill that could be a stand-in for the promising vistas of Utopian worlds concocted straight to VHS in the 1980s. It’s a little broad, a little too on-the-nose, and that seems to be the intent. Within a minute, the trill remains faintly in the background, but the forefront of the composition swells with a different, more nuanced kind of positive inflection. Toying with synths, piano, treated percussion, and a touch of horns low in the mix, the duo Inventions map out their sonic utopia, sounding like a cross-over campaign between Vangelis and Mogwai, maybe with more than a few touches of Boards of Canada thrown in for good measure. And while, yes, the piece continues to grow in scale, adding strings, it always resonates with a punchy and immediate kind of optimism, something as reductive but memorable as that trill. Its structural haziness, however – the blurring of the line between dream and reality – makes it wholly other. Sonically and in terms of initiation, it’s a wondrous call to order.

Inventions – the project of friends Mark T. Smith of Explosions in the Sky and Matthew Cooper of Eluvium – have been smudging the lines between dream and reality and, sonically, the grandiose and the intimate since 2014. On the duo’s third full-length LP, Continuous Portrait, Smith and Cooper do best when they are debating, in real-time, how to blur the lines. Take “A Time in My Life”, which falls near the end of the nine-track offering. There are Cooper’s signature touches of ambiance, played with an ear for detail – a little exhalation of sound, a mechanical thrum gently caressing the scenery. But the central motif, which is sometimes a solemnly strummed guitar and sometimes a piano, is emotionally devastating and resonant stuff, bold to the same degree that the sound-pulses on “Hints and Omens” were scene-setting.

On “Outlook for the Future”, a single if the record has one, the duo again toy with this notion of the understated and the emboldened, pairing a quirky loop of flute-toned synths with gradual – and far more subtle – swells and washes in the background. There are some recorded clips: an older woman muttering, “I don’t worry about the future.” Though it’s an interesting tool to provide narrative and context, it seems almost incidental to the painterly work going on around it.

Inventions play with similar conceits on the more somber palette of the gorgeous “The Warmer the Welcome”, where sound clips that sound cut in a cavernous train station flesh out delicate measures of piano and synth. It’s so muted that not even the introduction of handclaps (again, very low in the mix) spikes the collective temperature very much. There are bridges in “The Warmer the Welcome” that are devastating for their emotional complexity, not to mention how Smith and Cooper carefully surround key figures with accenting ambiance.

Elsewhere on the record, the duo can be a little less than masterful. The album-closing “Saw You in a Movie” occasionally flirts (stress on the “occasionally”) with Explosions in the Sky’s trebly soars, but, more than anything, it’s a patchy collection of half-thoughts, a lost opportunity. On “Calico”, the second track, found percussion is played so high in the mix that it distracts for the more subtle gestures. This far from detracts from a record, though, that in its finer moments makes listeners question the intents of joy and sadness and the blurred intersection between utopian concepts and more scaled-back realities. It’s a ride that’s somehow both bold and blushed — and it’s in these spaces where this Continuous Portrait‘s magic is best captured. – Justin Vellucci, PopMatters, June 4, 2020

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