Dissonance is usually the site of stone-faced experimentation, where the only smiles arise from the satisfaction of feeling how far disharmony can twist the knife. Dissonance has a wicked sense of humor.
With its strange intervals and sometime-strange combinations of more than eight instruments among six members, Friend Roulette is definitely a little wicked. The band’s new LP, I See You. Your Eyes Are Red., sends us on a wild ride, alternating between sparse, pretty compositions and layered orchestral explosions. This often prevents the listener from guessing at or understanding the trajectory of each song, but that only makes the experience more engaging. By eluding traditional form, artist comparisons, and most expectations of build-up and resolution, the album forces us to hang on for dear life. Playful and dramatic, Friend Roulette’s breed of dissonance is akin to the moment when a knife comes around the corner in a horror film.
The film comparison doesn’t stop there. The suspenseful and surprising music on I See You. Your Eyes Are Red. adheres to the form of movie scores as much as it does pop songs. Each track feels like its own narrative, unified by tone and story but following the twists and turns of a plot whose structure is obscured. Without warning, the gentle male/female harmony and wind instruments of “Up in the Air” combust into a funky chorus of horn sections and ominous synths; “Warm Year” fades from a pop chorus to an instrumental bridge with minor strings; and, as if quoting cinematic source music, “You Drank All the Eggnog” breaks into a few moments of the holiday classic, “Sleigh Ride.”
The lyrical narratives feel cinematic, too, with the vivid imagery of the drug overdose in “Stoned Alone,” couched in an upbeat psychedelic tune, or the sad, yuletide scene on display in “You Drank All the Eggnog.” Even though the songs are sometimes atonal and often unpredictable, Friend Roulette’s movie-style narratives draw us in until we’re fully hooked.
More than the dissonance or the drama, though, it’s the restraint that captivates on I See You. Your Eyes Are Red. For a six-member band, especially one with two percussion players, the album is precise and deliberate. Julia Tepper’s clear voice shines when it needs to and fades when it doesn’t, and the instruments, including the under-appreciated EWI (electronic wind instrument), play off of each other in creative and varying blends that are intelligent without being stiff. By returning to focus on orchestral arrangement, Friend Roulette has created something that feels fresh.
But all of that might invest too much seriousness in a band whose main press photo features gummy worms spilling from its members’ mouths. These are friends from Brooklyn enjoying playing together, and that reflects in their music. In listening to I See You. Your Eyes Are Red., you get the sense that there’s even more to gain from seeing the band live. In person, you can witness what’s hinted at on the album: the wicked smiles that come from having fun, or, perhaps, that subtle twist of the knife.