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Blank Realm: Illegals in Heaven *

Album Notes

For a band that hates straight lines as much as Blank Realm does, descriptions like "focused" and "cohesive" don't quite grasp how they've gotten better with each album. Historically, a big part of their appeal lay in the feeling that anything could happen during one of their songs; Illegals in Heaven keeps that unpredictability but adds just enough consistency to ensure that whatever happens is likely to be great. Recorded and produced by Room40 label head Lawrence English, the band's fifth album is also the first one they recorded in an actual studio. With some of their rough edges smoothed and loose ends trimmed, they're raw but versatile -- and in true Blank Realm fashion, none of Illegals' first three songs sound much like each other. Shards of Devo and the Germs pop up in "No Views"' whiplash attack and buzzsaw guitars (a vibe they expand on later with "Costume Drama"'s jagged mischief); "River of Longing" dives into their jangly, poetic side, delivering another sidelong anthem like "Back to the Flood"; and "Cruel Night" evokes both Bob Dylan and Royal Trux in its surreal flow. As the album unfolds, it's held together loosely -- because that's the only way Blank Realm can hold anything -- by its emotional tenor. Illegals in Heaven's title suggests that the band snuck through the pearly gates and could be sent back at any moment, and there's a certain daring to these misfit love songs that makes them even more romantic. The tension between Blank Realm's deadpan side and their wild-eyed, passionate one generates sparks: "We'll escape to the fire escape" sounds like a wry declaration of love on "Dream Date," while "Palace of Love" suggests in its own rousing way that it's possible to have too much happiness. Nevertheless, Illegals in Heaven is at its finest when the band allows itself to feel -- and express -- big emotions, however unfamiliar or scary. Sarah Spencer's delicate lead vocals on "Gold" lend the song an almost unbearable tenderness; meanwhile, "Flowers in Mind" counters its philosophical verses with a swell of guitars that recalls the way Television would suddenly reach for the sky. "Too Late Now" closes the album with just the right amount of heartbreaking and life-affirming farewells and realizations; like the rest of Illegals in Heaven, it packs an emotional wallop that's all the more affecting because it's so unexpected. Easily the band's finest work yet, Illegals' little quirks and huge emotions have what it takes to sweep listeners off their feet. ~ Heather Phares


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