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Arson Welles are feeling a little confined. At an in-studio appearance on Radio K's Off the Record program on a recent Friday afternoon, the four young men and their array of high-tech toys are cramped between peeling beige walls. The group is also finding itself plagued by an array of technical difficulties. The inconvenience, however, provides an opportunity for frontman Eric Olsen to showcase a Rosie O'Donnell-like repertoire of Broadway standards (his choice of a close-cropped hairdo and black leather actually recall the talk-show queen's appearance in the Dan Aykroyd S&M comedy Exit to Eden more than her run in Grease). Olson playfully hollers to his three bandmates, "Sound of Music? How about South Pacific or Paint Your Wagon?"
Instead, the group opts for a succession of sound-check standards like "Jessie's Girl" and "Summer of '69." Then, having built up enough stamina to enter their personal realm of power pop, they soar through "Wash My Hands," one of many dense ballads that color their self-produced synth-pop LP Inside the System Is the Spark. Olsen's tender vocals play off a solid backing of sequencers and rhythm, filling the already overstuffed studio.
The band members are equally restless when I greet them three days later within the lofty surroundings of Moose and Sadie's coffee shop, tucked away on a bustling block in the Warehouse District. Music Tech is just around the corner, and the street also houses a number of recording studios, including Burr-Holland, the space co-owned by Olsen and his bandmate, keyboard player Joshua Holland, a tall, chiseled New York transplant. Today both men are dressed in muted shades of black and gray, as is guitarist Michael Rusteck. MIA this morning is their wild card drummer Robert White, whose Hawaiian shirts and lengthy brown curls are often subject to scrutiny from the group, who strive for precision in every aspect of their product.
With his sizable arms outstretched, a grinning Olsen recounts with hilarity an episode involving Rusteck's leap into a Toronto fountain after their performance at Toronto's annual North by Northeast showcase, and the subsequent ruin of his leather pants. Rusteck's mishap followed a string of unfortunate incidents to plague the band, including the theft of their equipment. As he relates the story, it's evident that Olsen's bountiful charisma can carry the band, and also that he's willing to own up to his role as the group's centerpiece.
"When you look at bands from the Seventies, bands that always kind of excited me, there was always a singer that was just a singer," he says. "Someone to watch when everyone was looking at their hands, or whatever. I thought it would be fun to [try a] throwback to that."
The more reserved Rusteck chimes in: "I'd never been in a band with a frontman before. It's so nice to have someone doing something while you're stuck playing guitar."
But the band's first full-length is definitely a group effort. System is an aerodynamic pop structure with the melancholy of New Order and the Smiths seeping in through the cracks. Throughout the album, Olsen cautiously navigates the slippery terrain of a relationship with a ruminative melancholy not unlike the Moz might imagine. Meanwhile, the band charts its territory with a bombastic churn of keyboard and guitar. The heartfelt "Easy on Me" resounds with a pleading "I don't wanna wait, I don't wanna think for this long./If you get me home, go easy on me." This organized chaos reaches its crescendo with "Up in Orbit," a melody that's as aptly named as it is triumphant--Arson Welles is taking off.