By Eric Blendermann
“Beautifully sad, tortured but sweet” – the LA-based downtempo trio UNA sketches that melancholy aesthetic on “The Astronomer,” the opening track from their new EP, The Laughing Man . The five tracks on this brief collection are sad and sweet indeed, understated and elegant, with strong emotional undercurrents throughout. Sad, but it’s the good kind of sad.
On The Laughing Man, UNA sets very old-fashioned-sounding lead vocals and dramatic, choral harmonies against contemporary electronic production to create a classic, romantic but thoroughly modern sound, telling tales of forlorn characters, swept up in love and longing. “The Astronomer” sets the stage, opening with synthesized, cosmic harmonies, then bringing in Jennifer Cook’s intimate, sometimes whispered vocals to tell the story of the lonely stargazer, searching for love, or at least connection. The mood of yearning continues on “We Are the Lonely,” another very personal meditation on whether there is truly anybody out there for us. “I wonder if I still believe/ we are all meant to be loved…” – who hasn’t wondered? The multi-layered chorus that provides the background counterpoint on this track really raises the drama quotient.
The instrumental palette on The Laughing Man is rich and cinematic, blending and layering pianos and other keyboards, strings, electric guitars, and gentle percussion; even taking into consideration the wonders of modern production techniques, the warmth and depth of these tracks is impressive, especially considering that they’re created by just two guys, keyboardist and producer Richard Larsen and turntablist Eddie Barajas.
Much of the EP plays like the soundtrack to a break-up in a café, and its aftermath. In “The Myth,” Cook dolefully recounts an unhealthy relationship, “a tapestry of a tragedy,” in a minor key over a reproachful chorus. Then in “Out of the Dark,” she makes the case for hope after all, over a jaunty beat peppered with electric piano, turntable stabs and samples. The title track closes out the set with a charmingly stilted spin on the Pagliacci character – “the laughing man, he trick us all, nobody sees him weep” – set against music-box keyboards and deft percussion straight outta the French Riviera.
Clearly, The Laughing Man was crafted to evoke a distinctly romantic and cinematic sound, and it succeeds completely. Falling somewhere between the smoky downtempo of Morcheeba and the hipster cabaret of Dresden Dolls, this brief collection from UNA is equal parts wistful and playful, and entirely perfect for springtime in Paris, or anywhere else.