Portland-based electro-pop kalimba-ist (or, if you prefer, thumb-piano player) Eliot Rose signaled the beginning of his set at Mississippi Pizza Pub on Saturday, August 2, not by clearing his throat, tuning, or boldly launching into song, but by commencing a deadpan reading of a smile-inducing paragraph written (presumably by Rose himself) in the instructional, self-help style of How to Win Friends and Influence People. He offered friendly advice for musicians about how best to welcome the audience, let them know that one is beginning to play, and help ease them into their roles as listeners.
In addition to being a meta-gesture of comedic deflation worthy of Andy Kaufman, Rose's self-directed, self-aware, and awkward onstage oration about how to avoid onstage awkwardness was a theatrical way of making manifest the melancholy catch inherit in being a performer: You bring people together by creating a shared experience you yourself cannot participate in. Clothed in the wardrobe and persona of an eager-to-please but socially inept grade school science teacher and aided by his kalimba, samples, and unsteady baritone (as well as by members of folk outfit Gatos), Rose delivered a harlequin set of ballads and boogies that constitute the wistful, stargazing heart of his new album, The Calculated Dream, which happens to be the year's most unexpected, nostalgia-drenched, and strangely sanguine pop delight.
Rose was last seen on the local stage in 2004 as the principal and founding member of his analog-worshipping, texture-oriented, lo-fi, sci-fi synth band the Scientifics. The group mysteriously self-destructed on tour that year, and Rose expatriated himself to Japan and then Romania where he learned to play the kalimba, and began writing and recording songs that he would finish over two years' time upon returning to Portland in 2006, resulting, finally, in The Calculated Dream, released at the abovementioned show.
Building indie pop songs around a kalimba may sound like an ill-advised gimmick, but Rose gets remarkable results out of his instrument and demonstrates the–not simply novel–behind it. The kalimba is both a profoundly percussive and distinctly pitched musical tool. Rose uses it to plunk out intricate, repetitive melodies that clearly convey their own rhythmic underpinnings, leaving him free to pile on monophonic keyboard lines, vocal hooks and harmonies, warbling samples that recall Jetsons cars and satellite bleeps, and light metallic percussion without having to tether the whole buoyant thing to the kind of reductive, overbearing beats so prevalent in electronic pop.
Taken with Rose's penchant for star imagery and lyrics of lost love and companionship, the spaciousness and glow of the production creates a lovely bittersweet atmosphere that calls to mind 1950s balladry and doo-wop—especially on twist-ready album highlight "The Infinite Gloom." Like much of the music of that era, The Calculated Dream is not ultimately a dark record, in spite of its shadowy themes and sonorities. Though the landscapes Eliot invokes are almost uniformly unpopulated and nocturnal, they are lit by the familiar, story-laden glow of constellations and remembered intimacy—a light of proximity if not exactly nearness, a gentle heat that Eliot, like a performer, can inspire and observe, if not exactly touch.