The first (and so far only) time I saw Astronauts, etc. live, they were sandwiched in the middle of a fairly incongruous lineup at San Francisco's Rickshaw Stop. All three acts were great—Go Dark, the wonderful, borderline psychotic electropop duo from Oakland had kicked things off, and East-via-North-Bay trip-hop darlings Sister Crayon were headlining—but when Anthony Ferraro and company went up onstage I couldn't help but think that they seemed a little out of place.
Preceded and followed by groups that stoked the crowd with occasionally extravagant, high-energy performances, Astronauts, etc.'s laid-back presence was a little bit jarring. Ferraro's seamless songwriting chops and soulful delivery were mostly lost on me in retrospect, and beyond a quick exchange of information after the show I more or less lost track of the band for the next few months. Now, of course, I'm kicking myself for being so oblivious.
Mind Out Wandering, the group's full-length debut, is a truly phenomenal work of jazzy, disco-tinged pop that seems to have blindsided the rest of the industry almost as much as it did me. If we'd been paying attention, though, the signs were all there to peg these guys as next-big-thing material (yes, now I know they had a moment on Hype Machine in 2012, you can stop reminding me).
2014's Sadie EP may have ventured more explicitly into dream-pop territory than their latest compositions, but it nonetheless displayed the willingness to experiment with contradictory genres that makes Astronauts, etc.'s style so appealing. Ferraro's process is an additive synthesis that has, so far, resulted in a sound that is at once familiar and wholly unique.
Take the second track, "Place With You," for example. It blends a driving, anticipatory, somewhat chamber-poppy verse with parenthetical, '70s-era interludes. The chorus is an irresistible fusion of both, and is so fantastically catchy that I found myself putting the song on loop for a solid twenty minutes before I felt like I'd had enough.
The vocals are also central to the success of the album—all those cerebral exercises would be for naught if they weren't tied together with some passion. As far as I'm concerned, Ferraro's trademark falsetto is right up there with Matthew McConaughey and Seal in the seductive male voices department (as much as a bespectacled indie musician can break into that pantheon, anyway). It's understated and a little breathy, but you can tell this guy knows what he's doing behind the mic.
I could spend the rest of this review going through the album track-by-track, but I think that might miss the point a bit. Mind Out Wandering feels like a cohesive whole—which makes sense, given that it's something of a concept album about falling in love—and to focus too much on which singles will get the most airtime seems unfair to the thoughtful, dynamic way it progresses. That said, "I Know" and "Shake It Loose" are probably going to be the soundtracks to my commute for a good long while.
When all is said and done, I think that night at the Rickshaw Stop might actually have been the ideal way to be introduced to Astronauts, etc. I was forced to hear their music in a fundamentally different context than I would normally expect, and Ferraro's is a complexity that shines under any circumstance. Mind Out Wandering is further proof that he isn't afraid to take conceptual risks, and when he does, the results are sure to be stunning.