Shifting Skin (Epic)

Los Angeles' Failure, comprised of core songwriters Ken Andrews and Greg Edwards, issued three immaculately produced albums for Warner Bros., including its swan song, the sprawling, epic masterpiece Fantastic Planet, before calling it quits in 1998. If the band's stock in trade -- monolithic distorted guitars, detached vocals, and an odd fascination with life's seamier side -- wasn't exactly unique, the compositional prowess of Andrews and Edwards was, ensuring the band a place on the mantel of every self-respecting altrock connoisseur. Whether Andrews' outstanding new project, On, is elevated to the same heights will depend on the willingness of Failure's remarkably rabid fans to accept their hero's exploration of a new sonic terrain: namely, '80s-inspired synth rock.

Shifting Skin, recorded almost entirely by Andrews in his Los Angeles home studio late last year, sees Failure's wall of guitars recessed to make room for a new, electronica-influenced landscape. The change is immediately apparent on the opening "C'mon Collapse," on which Andrews sings, "I'll understand you, even when you try to fake me out," over programmed beats, string samples, and juicy synth flourishes usually reserved for an entirely different kind of club than the ones Failure used to play. Things escalate from there with the irresistibly danceable "Slingshot" and "If I Get to Feel You," a harmless paean to lust. Clearly, Andrews is a damn sight happier than he was two years ago, with his newfound musical freedom seemingly a large part of the reason. "All I see is everything I've wished I could be," he sings over a dainty keyboard line on the title track. "I suppose I never really tried to let go."

What prevents Shifting Skin from sounding like pure electronica slumming is Andrews' expert use of the technology he employs, coupled with beefy production and an undiminished ability to write killer hooks. With its massive, stomping beat and chunky synth chords, "Paper Thin Soul" is a dance floor hit waiting to happen, while "Soluble Words" (recently remixed by Martin Gore of Depeche Mode) sounds like a millennial update of Gary Numan's angular synth-pop. It also exhibits Andrews' propensity for morphing simple melodies into epic tunes. But not all of Shifting Skin bounces. "Avalanche" is a strangely optimistic tale of high-altitude disaster, while the closing "Pick Up" is a somber plea to a departed lover. Throughout Shifting Skin, Andrews combines keyboard pop with the best qualities of his old band: excellent songcraft, smart lyrics, and top-shelf production. But anyone expecting another Failure record should move along.

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