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msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/11/2005 5:54:06 PM ET 2005-07-11T21:54:06

Turn up the Headphones’ latest mixture of synthesized hooks and story-laden vocal wanderings, and you’re likely to uncover electro-pop with a heartrending twist.

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Part man, part machine, the Headphones rely on plunky keyboards, catchy synth samples and driving beats, situated perfectly over the vocal stylings of Pedro the Lion ringmaster, David Bazan.

On the Headphones’ newest self-titled release, Bazan (who already has a third project in the works) takes a break from his long-standing indie project to throw lyrical hooks over Tim Walsh’s manic live beats and the keyboard magic of Frank Lenz to create a string of pseudo-pop tunes that remain true to Pedro the Lion's timeless audio imagery.

While fellow Seattle electro-experimentalists the Postal Service rely on upbeat synths and sunny day melodies, the Headphones veer to the more austere, trading happy hooks for somber croons.

Clocking in at just over 35 minutes, the Headphones mark a transition from the trappings of traditional electro-pop, embracing simple arrangements and brooding melodies.

Bazan’s trademark vocals fit nicely on the disc, dipping in and out casually over 16-bit bleeps and beeps as he reflects on common themes of life, love and human imperfection.

The flammable “Gas and Matches” kicks off the disc with a flurry of keys reminiscent of a first generation videogame soundtrack. Bazan skillfully paints a picture with his confection-coated vocal melodies, extending his signature style in perfect synchronization over the bouncy backbeat.

The CD picks up speed with the infectious “Hot Girls,” Bazan’s cautionary narrative about “selling out,” and flows into the disc’s best track, “I Never Wanted You,” which grandstands an eclectic mix of beautifully arranged keys and drums that offer a glimpse into the album’s darker side.

On “Self Titled” Bazan swaps guitars for synthesizers, but keeps his somber repertoire intact, making sure to tackle a few of his favorite topics under the guise of mellow pop. On “Natural Disaster” Bazan enters political territory, handing out philosophical riffs on government and religion: “Or maybe a couple of airplanes could crash into buildings / And put the fear of God in you.” And on “Hello Operator” he treads skittishly on the subject of infidelity, “When she finally picks me up checking for a dial tone / To finger in the number of her new lover’s telephone,” ending bitterly with the cheater’s demise.

The Headphones move to jauntier material on the album’s first single, “Pink and Brown,” an upbeat track set to Casio-esque synthesizer samples.

On “Slow Car Crash,” the Headphones grind to a halt, exposing the group’s talent for creating engaging slow jams. The song (appropriately, best experienced on a pair of headphones) employs the finest synth-pop sounds by exploring the band’s softer side. Bazan doesn’t move into uncharted turf lyrically, but tackles familiar themes of human suffering and final goodbyes with the sincerity of a master songwriter.

Bazan has come a long way in his attempt to go digital, but despite its successes, the album does hit a few snags. Bazan and crew tread too closely to Pedro the Lion stylistically and the album often spirals into obscurity with meandering tracks like “Wise Blood” and “Major Cities.”

Yet where the Headphones fall short, the band quickly regains ground, successfully transcending the pitfalls of other synth-pop acts by refusing to stray from what they do best — tell a good story.

For more information on the Headphones, visit: http://www.headphonesmusic.com/.

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