The Mole, As High As the Sky

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The adjective I keep reaching for when describing The Mole’s debut album, As High as the Sky, is “minimal,” even though I feel guilty of a misnomer. There’s nothing sparse about it; and even though the changes are slight, there is definite forward movement coursing through many of its 11 filled out tracks. So why am I stuck on the word?

I’ll admit that I’m still sorting through Colin de la Plante’s seven-year-deep back catalog, but what I’ve heard backs up my seemingly incongruous word choice. De la Plante’s talent is carving out flexible and compelling loops to serve as the foundations for his tunes. And while they’re often furnished with enough ornamental sounds to give the feeling of development, there’s a certain austerity about his relying on so few sounds for the basis of an entire track. Take his 13 minute long barn-stormer, “Baby, You’re the One,”  which jumps rope around a frantic flurry of three notes and goes double dutch to avoid stepping on the sugary patchwork of vocals chirping the title. It’s nothing if not fun, but de la Plante’s clever editing and impressively drawn out arranging disguises just how reduced its contents truly are. (Granted the album version is greatly pared down, but the effect is much the same.)

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It’s a trait that cuts both ways, as some tracks flourish under constraints while others struggle to have the same impact. Perhaps the most effective is the halcyon “Smiling and Running,” a deep and reverberating pool of rippling tones driven by a brawny bass line and scissoring hi-hats which seems weightless despite its abundant low end. Repetition lends tension to the slowly unfolding “Ain’t the Way It’s Supposed to Be,” a galloping tech-house number borne from stretched strings and waterfall flute runs. And for the plucky “Hey Girl (I Feel So Good),” the school yard ambiance and hard-ridden funk groove recall Pepe Bradock with fewer quirks.

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But when de la Plante weaves “Knock Twice” from a similar cut-up disco cloth, the combination starts to get tired. “Alice, You Need Him” just barely saves itself from toolish stagnation, slowly revealing a syncopated counter melody among the sonar swirling pings which dominate much of the track. Less lucky is the ravish “Still In My Corner,” which gets stuck on barely modulating synth spine. When tracks like the wobbling groove-centered “Gracias a Los Ninos” and chanting “Like the Way” offer only a patina of tone color on their percussive structures, the first few minutes of each can feel more than sufficient. With all that’s on offer throughout the album, one might wonder why The Mole was compelled to hold back when a few extra melodic strains would’ve hardly weighed things down.

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In the end, As High As the Sky feels something like a referendum on minimalist restraint, with “yes” voters loving every repeated note while the “no” crowd more often reaches for the skip button. Still, Colin de la Plante’s loop-centric viewpoint, meticulous handiwork and ear for what’s worth repeating make for a fairly compelling album that generally retains its value after repeated listens. Whether it registers as “minimal” — good or bad — depends on the ears of the beholder.

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