Before the Condo Pets EP, it had been a relatively quiet year for the otherwise prolific James Ferraro. Aside from an appearance on the seventh entry in the FRKWYS series (along with the likes of Laurel Halo and Daniel Lopatin) as well as reissues of his two big 2010 LPs (On Air and Night Dolls with Hairspray), Ferraro had only offered fans a vague press release announcing the forthcoming release of his Far Side Virtual full-length (in addition to, um, facial reconstruction surgery to look more like Princess Diana). Ferraro, like Sean McCann and the Emeralds dudes, is one of those guys that usually releases music at the frequency with which you or I might, say, go grocery shopping or update iTunes. As expected of an artist with such rapid-fire output, not every new work is a masterpiece; that said, Ferraro—whether recording under James or Jim—has been a reliable source of warped, lo-fi neo-retro-pop for some time now.
So imagine my surprise when I pressed play on Condo Pets and was greeted not with hazy static but rather a crystal-clear drum machine mimicking the popping sound one might expect from a song called “Text Bubbles.” Before long, a pat melody is in place, aided by sitcom-holiday-special strings and a distinct lack of helium-enhanced vocals. Indeed, the entire EP—all 16 minutes of it—takes this pattern, merging simple rhythmic textures (think woodblocks and sleigh bells) with quirky orchestral accents like the synth-generated horns of “The Secret World of Condo Pets,” the artificial choir (accompanying the sound of thrift-store party blowers) on “Eco-Tot,” and the Peanuts-esque piano chords of “Life in a Day.” More than a self-sufficient collection of fully realized songs, the Condo Pets EP seems like a collection of ideas that Ferraro plans to put to greater use soon; over the course of these seven songs, one gets the impression that he’s still figuring out how to operate without the misty aid of lo-fi production. One of the songs here is called “Find Out What’s On Carrie Bradshaw’s iPod,” and he’s not kidding; much of the EP could serve as incidental music for some Sex and the City gadget-shopping-spree montage.
But if Condo Pets is the unexpected appetizer, then Far Side Virtual is the delicious entree, seemingly aiming at being the music that future bedroom pop stars will seek to recreate with hypnagogic wonder. It asserts the themes at which Condo Pets only hinted; its fascination with the most recognizable markers of contemporary consumerism manifests itself in its uncharacteristically clear transmission. We get snippets of imagined 90s computer program dialogue in which a digital waiter takes our sushi order, a robotic woman spelling out “D-I-S-N-E-Y,” mentions of technologies like the “iTablet,” and text-message-received bleeps and bloops familiar to anyone with iChat or a smartphone. And that’s not to mention the track titles that reference everything from Pixar and Apple laptops to fro-yo, solar panels, Starbucks, and “Dr. Seussism.”
There’s no hidden pop gems here like there were on, say, Night Dolls, and this phase of Ferraro’s career still seems very much like a work in progress. But I still give him a lot of credit for attempting to extend the “h-pop” hypothesis to current technology (as opposed to the analog remembrances of the 1980s that predate many of the genre’s most eager participants. And Ferraro’s index of instruments is a marvel to behold: gleefully artificial sitars like you might hear soundtracking a desert course in Mario Kart, infomercial orchestration that charms rather than overwhelms, smooth saxophones, resounding piano notes, and an optimistically uptempo panoply of beats and rhythms. Best of all, the LP is just as sleek as the Condo Pets EP. It’s clear that Ferraro spent a lot of time—and, presumably, money—committing these songs to tape (hard drive?), and he explores his new aural capabilities like a kid at a toy store with a blank check in hand. Check out the ephemeral finger snaps that wind in and out of time signatures on “Bags” or the synth choirs/monster-truck-commercial guitar riffs on “Palm Trees, Wi-Fi and Dream Sushi.” The latter song also reminds us: “Richard Branson’s avatar sells hello.” I suddenly have the urge to create a metropolis in SimCity before destroying it with an arm of UFOs and neon-colored tornadoes.
While James Ferraro is hardly the first artist to explore the future-recent-past-isms as reflected in pop and r&b music, he’s the first to do so in this way. The clear production suggests an advancement in recording technology that runs parallel to the gizmos and tech companies with which he saturates these two releases. And without the aid of his voice, we’re forced to focus on the sounds themselves; what they mean, what they connote, and what they remind us of. Condo Pets and especially Far Side Virtual sound unprecedentedly polished, and while that could have resulted in disaster for Mr. Smoky Teen Haze himself, it turns out that Ferraro has much more to say than just “remember how awesome VHS tapes were?” Now the focus is more likely to be on Blu-Ray discs than any kind of cassette, but that’s okay; somebody has to be the stenographer of our wireless modern lives.
Last year’s reissue of his Last American Hero opus depicted a Best Buy on the cover. Now it seems Ferraro has finally wandered inside, and we can only hope that he sticks around for a while. There’s a whole new world ready to be excavated through these cultural signifiers, and if you call now, we’ll throw in a complimentary no-stick utensil set—a twenty dollar value, yours free!
Condo Pets: 7/10, Far Side Virtual: 9/10