REVIEW: Radiation City - Synesthetica

Kelly Kirwan

I'll be honest, I've always thrown a bit of shade towards Valentine's Day. It's an explosion of Russell Stover candies and oversized teddy bears in drug store aisles, and I guess my bitter heart could never quite wade through the saccharine-sappiness of it all. That is, until I found a "plus one" that was able to craft lush pop melodies marked by an easy flow and darker, more grounded subtext—the Portland quintet Radiation City.

The band was actually forged from the friendship (turned romance) between Elisabeth Ellison and Cameron Spies, who then enlisted Patti King and Randy Bemrose to round out their group and create a musical double date (yes, this is a tale of two couples.) Since their formation, the band's had their fair share of hurdles, both musically and romantically. There have been stalled engagements and members momentarily splintering off to complete side projects, all in a vaguely familiar, Fleetwood Mac fashion. But now, whatever bitterness that may have percolated in those rough patches has dissipated into glimmering synths and bossa nova highlights—all on their new album, Synesthetica, released under Polyvinyl Records.

The title is a nod to synesthesia, which essentially is a cross-triggering of the senses. It's a condition that causes Ellison to intertwine music and color—a multi-faceted sensation that Radiation City aimed to emulate on their latest compilation. Their LP is a blend of nightingale vocals that sway from soft to sultry, accompanied by cheery guitar riffs and the occasional Latin acoustic accent. It's a warm and inviting interplay, with an optimistic feel that hides the sly weight of a grittier subject matter.

"Futures," for instance, feels fairly simple at first blush. Breaking from Ellison's otherwise smooth or high-flying pitch, the chorus has a monotonous and staggered delivery: "You came you saw your video / Your video / The video / Of when you were a little one / And everyone/ They made you feel really small." The vague detachment from these lyrics, vocally, nearly masks the emotionally weighted situation underneath, one of exclusion and condescension. It's inspired by Ellison's own feelings of alienation from her father, and what better catharsis is there than calling someone out with a catchy hook?

Then there are tracks like "Oil City" that have a softer, dreamier touch. Ellison's vocals are downright magnetic as they wrap around lyrics that are lush with poetic description: "And now the world is paved in gold / And your Midas touch / Tells me the night is young / I won't pretend / That this is the end." Its sunny disposition and vivid imagery make this song, in particular, one to repeat. I've come back to it, time and again, to try and gauge the story at play—is it a nostalgic view of a now fading relationship? Or a hopeful push to carry on? Either way, I'm in.

Another earworm is "Juicy," marked by a more languid pace and seductive feel. The repeated line, "Come play with me," is delivered in such a soothing, come-hither style that you feel your muscles relax with each drawn-out syllable. It's complete with instrumental interludes that stretch from low timbres to high spirals, cementing Radiation City's wide range and consistent romanticism. So go ahead and dive into Synesthetica for a healthy dose of groove and multi-sensory experience. It may just be the best date you have all weekend.