Tuesday, 28 September 2010

White Denim-Fits

Texas' White Denim burst onto the scene after touring the world and storming 2008's SXSW festival, where they were one of the most talked about bands of the festival alongside Vampire Weekend and MGMT due to their fierce live show, and released an album shortly after ("Workout Holiday" in the UK, "Explosion" in the US). The album collected together all their demo's, and whilst being pretty good, felt very disjointed which I guess is no surprise. But the record got great reviews and all was fine. A year later they released their second record "Fits", and once again it got mostly great reviews, but it did not seem to get any recognition beyond that. No one really talked about this record and it seemed to slip through the cracks of the music world.

To me this was baffling in the extreme, but it happened to me too, as I only discovered it around June of this year. Maybe it was due to the fact that they were being labelled "Garage Rock", a term that has been incessantly overused over the last decade, and became a thing I got tired very quickly of. But I fell in love with it straight away, it was instant. "Fits" is a record that covers an incredible amount of ground and depth; no longer can you simply call this band "Garage Rock", for that is insulting. What you get here instead is the band zipping between many genres and feelings, from some sort of "Garage Prog" (yes, I made up a genre), to labyrinthine night time funk, to expansive psych, to breezy summer folk, all whilst making it seem like the most natural and easy thing in the world. It goes so much further than "Workout Holiday" could have even dreamed of, which seemed to be a collection of idea's rather than songs and definitely felt like almost every song was incomplete in some way. Not so on "Fits", every song seems to have fulfilled its potential and then some. In fact, songs such as "Radio Milk" goes further than you could ever imagine; there is no structure to speak of at all, and it breaks off into many different places, but amazingly at the same time never feeling forced at all, which it so very easily could have done.

The record seems to be split into two separate parts. Tracks 1-5 is just frantic Rock music of the highest order, whilst tracks 6-12 gives us something far subtler but no less incredible. The opening 5 track salvo is just intense, no "songs" to speak of in the traditional sense, but there are great singable hooks, such as the soaring psych vocal melody of "All Consolation" (not unlike a modern re-imagining of Roky Erickson) or the frantic shout of "I Start to Run", backed by simply sensational Rock music. In fact, these tracks reminded me of how Joyous Rock music can be, something which I had totally forgotten. It seems in recent times we have been taught to not love "Rock" music, for it is old and beyond cliché, for which I would still mostly agree. Most "Rock" music makes me cringe, especially modern "Rock" music, but their is definitely nothing clichéd or cringe-worthy about this band, it is just simply great, and pure fun. Which is what its supposed to be all about in the first place.

People have compared White Denim to The Minutemen, which is understandable: Both bands play in funny time signatures and are influenced by funk. But White Denim don't actually sound much like The Minutemen, in fact they don't sound like any one band at all and this is one of the reasons why they are just so great. The record turns a big corner on track 6 of the album, "Sex Prayer" (awful title), which fits somewhere between early Parliament and the Doors. A funky and cool instrumental, it is here where the records becomes far more subtle and more interesting. "Mirrored and Reversed" sees the band take their biggest plunge into Psychedelia, something that half of the record seemed to be threatening to do, and is all the better for it. This leads to the first of four (almost) acoustic, poppy tracks which makes up the rest of the record. People complaining of a lack of "Songs" will be pleasantly surprised by "Paint Yourself", "I'd Have It Just The Way We Were" and "Regina Holding Hands", all sounding not unlike The Isley Brothers or even the Doobie Brothers (God forbid, but this actually turns out to be a GOOD thing, somehow). These tracks are breezy, summery, singable and joyous all at the same time and all in a good way, with the band not losing their edge at all on either the music or vocals. "Regina Holding Hands" comes out as being the albums high point (cleverly being the albums penultimate track), and looking back, probably the Best Pop song of 2009. The "Pop" bit being the key that will no doubt surprise many who have heard this band and probably dismissed them.

For me, a band like White Denim is truly what has been missing from modern music recently. A band ambitious enough to write music that definitely challenges people (and no doubt the band too) but never loses the plot and always feels natural: A band able to cover so many different sides and genres whilst still sounding like the same band. The playing and instrumentation on this album is also incredible, Drummer Joshua Block attacks his drum kit like a mad man. I am not someone who gets off from listening to Steve Vai, but at the same time when we have a band like The Drums who can barely play chords, a certain instrumental prowess is warmly welcomed if it is done right. And it is certainly done right here. "Fits" definitely isn't for everyone, and it will probably alienate a lot of people but that doesn't take away anything from it. I would just like more current bands to take note of what White Denim are doing and what makes them such a brilliant musical unit. They could learn a lot.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Deerhunter-Halcyon Digest review

It felt like the steps Deerhunter took before this album was even heard was them consciously stepping further and an attempt at reaching a wider audience: The move solely to 4AD, a seemingly more honed and professional live show and hiring Ben Allen of "Merriweather Post Pavillion" fame to produce and mix the record. If there was any time that Deerhunter should step from proper underground heroes to Grizzly Bear/Animal Collective-style success and position, this seemed to be it. But anyone who knows the back story of Deerhunter knows that it is never that simple with them. For many people, Deerhunter produces music that doesn't seem to have been thought about much, and that is meant in the best possible way; it rides and breathes on pure fucking emotion and spontaneity, and I would argue that this is what makes them great. Far greater in fact, than possibly any other band on Earth since their second record."Cryptograms" came out in early 2007.

Which makes "Halcyon Digest" even more of a disappointment for me and no doubt many other fervent supporters of the band. Not for the first time, Deerhunter seem confused. Previously, confusion was a subject casting a heavy shadow over the feel of their music and lyrics, a particular existential and newly-adult confusion, a dread even. But this time, it is actually the album itself which feels confused. "Halcyon Digest" sees a band wanting to move forward (like any good band should) but struggling to find its own voice and identity.

Unlike what many have predicted, this is not Deerhunter's "Big pop moment" or their breakthrough opportunity. The weirdness of previous releases has definitely been toned down for the most part, but this is not replaced by amazing hooks and catchy chorus', rather instead in the main pretty bland songs that just don't really do much at all, and don't seem to know how to. First single "Revival" begins with a great piano line that easily gets lodged in the brain, but the vocal melody throughout never takes off, and the band isn't doing anything even vaguely interesting to counteract to solve this pedestrian song. It ends with you feeling extremely unsatisfied. Ditto songs such as "Memory Boy" and "Basement Scene", the former featuring a nasty modern anthemc indie rock not unlike Arcade Fire, the latter featuring a great intro of swirling guitars that sounds like it was recorded in said basement, but which then switches to B-side Everly Brothers.territory and does that "Halcyon Digest" trick of not really doing much. The same can be said of most of the other songs, especially "Don't Cry". Supposed "centrepiece" of the album "Desire Lines" is exactly the same in its mediocrity, only much longer and featuring a just as boring lengthy instrumental section, which just really is not needed. You get the impression that the Band wanted to produce another "epic" in the form of say "Cavalry Scars " or "Nothing Ever Happened", but it just comes out feeling extremely forced.

Bradford Cox is still centred on his thoughts of before, stating "I don't want to get old" on "Basement Scene", a theme he has already touched on many times before. "Don't Cry" and "Helicopter" seem almost Deerhunter caricaturing themselves on each songs subject matter. But the main reason this record seems so severely lacking is the pure and simple fact that the songs just arn't up to much. And it even seems that the band realises this themselves. A lot of songs are extremely short, the shortest even feeling like pulled punches. Saxophone is added to "Fountain Stairs" and "Coronado", but rather than adding to the songs it just makes you feel like they are trying to cover up their songs lack of inspiration.

This is such a shame though, because "Halcyon Digest" also sees them branching out and developing in the right direction as well. Opener "Earthquake" sounds like nothing ever, before or since, with its creaky door-sounding drums and almost synth-like washes of sound. It somehow is able to sound both majestic and eerie at the same time. "Helicopter" is probably the most beautiful and inspired pop song of this year, and actually does not sound of this world. "Fountain Stairs" shows Lockett Pundt's vocals greatly improving since we last hear them on "Microcastle", sounding clear and magnificent. The band also hit a groove on that track which is golden, but the song isn't strong enough to carry it all the way through and ends not knowing what to do with itself. You will notice that is the first that has been written of the "Band" because this does not feel like a band record at all, and there is hardly any trace of Josh or Moses' influence on the record. It pretty much feels like a Bradford Cox solo record. "He would have laughed" sounds like it could have nearly been on Cox's "Logos" record, but is noway as inspired or just downright good enough to be on that record. It also feels mighty lost, not really knowing what to do with itself and just meanders aimlessly. Cox has always talked of trying to keep his Atlas Sound project separate from Deerhunter, but on this record it sees the two blurring into one.

At the end of the day though, the sheer painful truth of "Halcyon Digest" is that its just a boring, pedestrian album. There's no getting away from it. Many have talked of the "Fluorescent Grey" and "Rainwater Cassette Exchange" e.p.'s being transitional records, but this feels like the truly transitional Deerhunter record. Cox once said he wanted to be more than just another Indie Rock band, but on this record that is precisely what Deerhunter has become: a bland, middle-of-the-road Indie Rock band. I just hope this isn't the beginning of the end for them creatively.