By all outward appearances, Peter Katis is a mild-mannered guy. Sure, he’s produced acclaimed albums by acclaimed bands like Interpol, The National, Kurt Vile and Frightened Rabbit in the attic studio of his renovated Victorian house in Bridgeport, Connecticut, but you wouldn’t peg him for an indie-rock savant. He looks like he could be a financial advisor or a doctor. Yet beneath that low-key exterior beats an anarchic heart that surfaces in the music of The Philistines Jr., Katis’ band with his brother Tarquin. Glimpses of Katis’ subversive streak don’t come all that often—Help! is the group’s first new album in nine years, and just its second LP since 2000—but they’re usually worth waiting for.
Help! is no exception. The record is an attempt to make sense of the world at an unsettled time, on a big-picture level and also in ways that land closer to home for someone who makes his living as a music producer. “Synth sounds that would have made people laugh out loud a few years ago are now considered the coolest,” Peter Katis says in the press notes for the album. Strange days indeed. The sentiment is indicative of Katis’ meticulous approach to music, and as eclectic and whimsical as the songs on Help! sometimes get, they are sonically flawless.
Lead-off track “Don’t Open That Suspicious Package” mixes clanking percussion with soft piano and effects-treated vocals as Peter Katis muses about what might await inside a sketchy parcel—and the ongoing spread of surveillance culture in general. “I knew that they were listening / But I’ve got nothing to hide,” Katis sings. “I am afraid of nothing / I think we better hide.” It’s funny, in an oddball way, and also a little sorrowful. That’s a blend that The Philistines Jr. do very well, as if the former makes the latter more bearable.
That sensibility underpins “OK,” sung from the perspective of a pre-teen doing his best to stay out of trouble and meet various expectations with the help of modern pharmacology. A strong, straight-ahead drumbeat propels the song, accompanied by keyboards, synths and layers of vocals topped with a kid’s voice—one of several songs that expands the concept of a family band by featuring Peter and Tarquin’s children. In this case, it’s Peter’s son, who also stars in the video for the song.
Their progeny aren’t the only guests. Kori Gardner of indie-pop duo Mates of State helps out on “What? Help!,” a lush song with a redemptive streak that sends her voice soaring wordlessly over looped vocals and a rich blend of synthesizers and drums. Go-to indie-rock strings performer and arranger Rob Moose (Alabama Shakes, Bon Iver, The Decemberists) contributes violin and viola to three songs, including “A Very Useful Idiot,” where his parts weave their way through blankets of synthesizers and electric piano.
Moose is harder to detect on “The Latvian Gambit,” one of three instrumental tracks that help imbue Help! with an air of melancholy that never fully recedes. Nor should it: In its way, Help! calls bullshit on a world where surveillance culture and overextended children have become normalized. Doing so with musical arrangements that can be playful, and lyrics that have a tongue-in-cheek innocence about them, is about as subversive as it gets.