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Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Okapi Sun go for big beats on debut album

Dance-pop duo load up on flash and Auto-Tune

By Jeff Terich

Okapi Sun
Techno Prisoners (Phaedra)

It's not uncommon for a guitar-slinging singer / songwriter to succumb to the lure of slickly produced, top-40 pop sheen. In fact, with artists who've established themselves in the San Diego music scene, in particular, it's a pattern that's been repeated time and again. After a handful of best-selling albums of folk-pop (assisted by Steve Poltz) Jewel fully embraced dance-pop on 2003's 0304. And ever since becoming a favorite at Java Joe's in the early '00s, Jason Mraz has become the poster boy for goofy California-white-dude pop. 

Until early last year, Maren Parusel focused on earnest, guitar-driven indie rock, but that seems to have gone by the wayside—at least temporarily—thanks to the birth of her new band, Okapi Sun. A duo comprising Parusel and classically trained violinist Gabriela Sanchez, Okapi Sun sound absolutely nothing like what either musician's background might suggest. Not that that's a bad thing; change can be a positive force of creativity for some artists, and for two musicians who'd previously pursued much more "serious" musical outlets, it's refreshing to hear something more danceable and carefree on Okapi Sun's debut album, Techno Prisoners.

Here's the thing: Okapi Sun are an exceptionally silly act. They wear colorful outfits, open their shows with a repetitive chant, unapologetically employ heavy use of Auto-Tune and make fun a much higher priority than any lofty artistic ambitions. And there's something charming about that: Embracing the flash and hedonism of big-budget pop music more often than not yields some highly enjoyable and catchy results. "Cold Outside" is one of the subtler tracks on the record, and by allowing in some space, the duo highlights how strong their melodies can be. Similarly, the wonderful "Turn the Lights Off" brings to mind singles by groups like Cut Copy, with its blend of ethereal synthesizers and atmospheric guitar riffs.

The problem is that these moments don't occur nearly enough on Techno Prisoners. Far too often, the straight-up 4/4 beat pattern makes these songs indistinguishable from one another, and the Auto-Tune effects wear out their welcome pretty quickly. (Also, why on Earth is there a fake voice-mail message vignette on this album?) 

In small doses, Okapi Sun's high-energy pop can be infectious, and there's no doubt that the duo shows a lot of promise on Techno Prisoners. But they've still got a long way to go before they fully live up to it.

Email or follow him at @1000TimesJeff