Imagining an alternate soundtrack to a movie is idiosyncratic, as songwriting prompts go, but it seems to work for Rich Aucoin. The Canadian musician has been composing that way all along, often in sync with beloved children’s programming: Aucoin intended his 2007 EP Personal Publication to accompany How the Grinch Stole Christmas, while his 2014 LP Ephemeral matched up with the 1979 Claymation version of The Little Prince. For his latest, Aucoin picked the 1951 Disney film Alice in Wonderland to serve as a metaphor while he meditates on mortality.
Like the old canard about Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon supposedly syncing up with The Wizard of Oz, the concept is fun as long as long as you don’t think too hard about it. Fortunately, the songs on Release are absorbing enough that it doesn’t really matter whether the Cheshire Cat is grinning to the beat (though he kind of is). Aucoin has a knack for songs that sound intimate and big at the same time, thanks to hushed vocals and bold musical arrangements built around prominent beats and gauzy layers of synthesizers. He lays out the premise on opener “The Base,” which consists of a thumpy beat and spoken-word excerpts of a speech by the philosopher Sam Harris, an atheist who emphasizes, “The reality of your life is always now.” The rest of the album more or less explores what that means.
When it’s his own voice, Aucoin often sings persuasively at the top of his range. His breathy vocals float over an electric piano part and subtly funky bass on “The Dream.” They’re obscured by a skittering beat and deep wells of reverb and effects on “The Past,” and are nestled amid swaths of keyboards on “The Middle,” a wistful standout track. He takes a more resonant approach on “The Change,” singing in a lower register on the verse, accompanied at first by piano and steady bass, and then blooming into layers of vocals on the chorus. Not everything has vocals: “The Fear” gets by just fine on a busy piano part and an active bassline, while “The Mind” adds and subtracts pulsing synths and clattering rhythms like a club jam in real time.
The pace is brisk throughout Release, and the energy level never flags as arrangements shift and flow. There’s nothing particularly new or radical about Aucoin’s third LP: Alice in Wonderland aside, it’s a collection of songs that are thoughtful, tasteful and well-built. If some of them are more compelling than others, there’s not a dud in the bunch, and that’s no small achievement.