Olga Bell wants you to know that she knows her music can be hard to digest. “Do you have the stomach for it, now that you’ve got a taste for it?,” she asks mischievously on her new album, “Tempo.” As an on-and-off member of the Dirty Projectors and Chairlift, Bell belongs to a Brooklyn nü school of indie music that is either avant-garde intellect masquerading as sugary pop, or vice versa. There can be an overbearing irony and preciousness to this kind of melding, where one side can feel like a self-serving, preening front. But on “Tempo,” Bell adeptly straddles the line with a wink, offering an intriguing mix of leafy experimentalism to go with her more instinctive and immediately tasty beats.
Bell is at her best when she plays to both the solemn conservatory crowd and the ravers within the same song. You’d think that “Doppio” is a downtempo musing on loss from the first minute, as her voice plaintively wanders up and down her register. Then she lets out a gasping “whaaat!” and a giggle as a screaming 80s pop synth pulses; then comes the drop, and we’re off into a minimalist, twitchy beat that’s something like DJ Mustard on helium. As the bass rages, Bell builds up a distorted, skewered Animal Collective-style chorus of her own voice.
You could easily accuse Olga Bell of having OCD as a producer: there are new vocal styles, synths, drumpads, and grooves at every turn. The hyperactivity can be overwhelming, but mostly Bell leaves enough space for her songs to breathe and develop organically with pace. The peaks and valleys in “Power User” effectively set up an Azealia Banks flow; on the closer “America,” she creates dread out of glitchy spikes and suspended horns, which give way to a pre-chorus of authoritative calm.
A standout track, “ATA,” maximizes her flightiness, her conflicting impulses of overproduction and restraint, and her self-awareness as a musical weirdo. Her twisting enunciation, or lack thereof, makes you concentrate on the production: synthetic drums drip onto a slimy bass groove that you can’t quite dance to, but causes some sort of twitch in your body just the same. She then narrates an encounter with a fan, or maybe a pompous critic: “He left a thought in my brain, whispering, ‘You’re not the greatest but you’re good and you’re different / you know I always keep an eye on your work.’” As to prove him right, or maybe simply roll her eyes, she hits a dramatic vocal swell highly reminiscent of her former bandmates Amber and Angel, then hits the smallest drop you’ve ever heard: led by a dulcimer, a nursery trap party.
Sometime’s Bell’s conscious effort to be challenging and whipsmart can go too far: “Zone’s” melody has a nice contour but refuses to be affixed anywhere, floating awkwardly in space. And though Bell makes everything sound weird, it all still snaps to a grid. The album is so lacking of real played instruments you can almost see the dozen Abelton tracks scrolling away.
But Bell knows that it’s better for her to go too far and try too many new things, to make the thinkers dance and the dancers think. It might be dissettling on the stomach at first, but the album grows more filling every time.