Thomas Bartlett is a busy guy. When he’s not making his own records as the leader of Doveman, you can probably catch him playing keyboards for someone famous or indie-famous– Yoko Ono, Bebel Gilberto, David Byrne, Antony, Grizzly Bear, and the National, to name a few. When you play with such a range of musicians, it helps to have a personal style to retreat to when you make your own music, and over his first two albums (and his full-length cover of the Footloose soundtrack, which buzzkill lawyers and industry types have forced him to stop giving away on his website), he’s established one. It can be summed up in a word: quiet.
Bartlett’s vocal style seems to have been developed singing infants to sleep– breathy, soft, hardly more than a melodic whisper, really. The music follows suit, but he manages to find a pretty amazing variety at a low decibel level. The guys in his band– Dougie Bowne, Sam Amidon, Shahzad Ismaily, and Peter Ecklund– have backgrounds in a wide swath of music including mountain folk, Moroccan trance, punk, jazz, blues-rock, avant-garde, and neoclassical, and you hear bits and pieces of all of these on the record, even as it remains resolute in its mission to remain hushed. The band’s own website calls it “lamp rock,” whatever that means– my guess is they’re referring to the way the music spills into the room like light from an area lamp, providing ambiance and a bit of illumination.
The Conformist bridges the album era and the mp3 era in a weird way– it hangs together well, but sounds better broken down into individual tracks. When any of these come up in a shuffle, they sound great (and it’s likely to sound different from whatever comes before and after), but the album as a unit requires quite a bit of patience due to its lack of peaks and valleys. The diversity comes from the backing tracks, which range from burbling, slow-core electro on “Memorize” to oozing, textural string arrangements that shift with György Ligeti-ish fluency on “Tigers”, an American Analog Set-ish pulse on “Hurricane” (slathered in spacey synth), and basic strumming on closer “Castles”, which ultimately takes on a country tinge.
It’s hard to pick standout tracks, because the quality is as consistent as the level of intensity, meaning everything more or less comes out equal. The shifts from minimal passages to bigger arrangements and ultimately to a drum-led coda that hints at free improv elevate “From Silence”, while Bartlett’s vocal on “The Best Thing”, doubled by a very quiet Matt Berninger of the National, offers one of the best melodies. “The Cat Awoke” is another candidate– the brisk pace, led by banjo and some atmospheric guitar work, builds to a restrained climax that… well, it moves to another pretty quiet section. I don’t mean for that to sound so facetious, but your enjoyment of this album will likely depend on how much attention you can devote to its subtle shifts and varied textures, as it moves from one muted moment to the next.
— Joe Tangari, October 15, 2009