The Billions are no more, but Sam Billen carries on their cheesy, infectious, indie pop, legacy with his latest solo release, Headphones and Cell Phones, now available through local label The Record Machine. Billen is a gifted songwriter who must have spent months in his basement recording this solid album of beautifully crafted songs.
It's obvious this Lawrence-based musician relied heavily on synths for this album, and it comes across, at times, as if it were performed by an entire orchestra. Billen knows how to write a strong melody, and most of the melodies are layered by octaves, which gives the songs a warm appeal. On "Photographs," Billen carefully combines at least four vocals parts perfectly, seemingly making them act more as accompaniment parts instead of lead parts.
The Postal Service are an obvious influence, but one can also hear bits of The Boy Least Likely To and MGMT. Many electronic musicians can get carried away with trying to do too much. Billen seems to know when to limit himself with the amount of overtones and pads, and his vocals never get lost in the mix.
Compared to any release from The Billions, Headphones and Cell Phones is definitely more electronic. The strongest track is the title track, a synth-driven pop masterpiece which might even fit on the soundtrack to a John Hughes movie. "Daughters and Sons" has more of a R&B feel, reminiscent of a more serious Har Mar Superstar.
Headphones and Cell Phones just proves that with a synthesizer and a great skill for songwriting, anything is possible. Yes, many of the lyrics are a bit cheesy, but they fit well with the backdrop. This is a well-produced, well-arranged, very delightful album.