What I’ve always loved about Phillip Lauer is his willingness to go there. In the game for over a decade but really picking up steam over the last few years, as a member of both Arto Mwambe and Tuff City Kids and thus as an integral part of Live At Robert Johnson’s seemingly inexorable rise, Lauer produces the music of possibility, a soundtrack to unbridled optimism: if a melody can exist within the context of a track, you’ll find it in there; if a track has the ability to swell even by just a few inches, it’ll puff itself out to its breaking point. Tracks like the sprawling “H.R. Boss” from 2011, his greatest solo opus to date, take no prisoners, but his is a jail of ultimate kindness, an overstaffed day spa you receive a life sentence to. I can’t imagine feeling unmoved one way or the other by this guy’s material: like a dance music Steely Dan, he’s either the best thing there ever was or nails on a chalkboard.
Wherever you may fall, you’d be hard pressed to deny that a single Lauer track contains a pretty massive, if not borderline dangerous, dose of positive vibes — the extreme antidote to wearing black and clutching the Sandwell District back catalog, perhaps. But will a full 70 minutes of it be too much for even true believers in house cheese to bear? Phillips, Lauer’s first full-length, certainly puts his love-it-or-leave-it sound to the test. And while it admittedly makes for something of an inscrutable front-to-back listen, it contains some of the best nuggets in Lauer’s discography. He kicks off the record with one of them: merging the big, sunny melodies and carefree tempos he’s famous for with jangly guitars and an earnestness that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early Belle & Sebastian record, “70000AC” strikes a wonderfully unique chord. “Coppers,” the subtly dubby and surprisingly minor-key follow-up, and “Sheldor,” whose bold and unexpected melodic interplay sits nicely over a slamming snare, continues one of the more striking opening movements of any straightforward house record released this year.
With the pastel-pink piano-house of “Hafflinger” and twee-meets-Italo interlude “Frontex Slowfox” behind him, Lauer lands on “Tentatious,” the album’s brilliant apex. Where so often Lauer’s melodies hit you from every direction, not so much locking together as competing for dominance, here all these disparate sounds — bright pianos, punchy bass groove, FM-synthesized everything — come together for seven minutes of slinky bliss. But once his synth pads evaporate, Lauer has a hard time keeping the momentum up: “Crawlington” is precisely the sort of mess “Tentatious” isn’t; “Sandalscene” makes for a nice synth meditation, but it comes at a less than opportune moment in the context of an album arc; “Miamisync” and “Delmar 2700,” as uptempo and enthusiastic as they are, fail to break through in light of similar ideas presented earlier. It’s not that Lauer isn’t executing track by track; rather, he’s given us an outfit made up entirely of clashing plaids. The record luckily returns to form before the runout, with “TV” flirting with the Sarah Records back catalog and “Trainmann” hitting like a vintage Brontosaurus side: if you were lost through much of the second half, you’ve probably been brought right back in the moment. Despite its imperfections as an album, Phillips gets quite a lot right when taken in small doses, and its best moments certainly justify its asking price.