Tuesday, August 25, 2015

In Revue- 'Depression Cherry' (Beach House)

The last time, or maybe the time before (it's hard to say with certainty), that I was driving the two-hour stretch of I-70 from Columbia, Mo to Kansas City I had a cheaper than cheap pair of knockoff Raybans on. "POLYVINYL," a record label home to bands I love such as American Football was imprinted in white lettering on the black sides. I had just turned off the podcast Hollywood Prospectus featuring some witty repartee about the failings of True Detective Season 2 when I switched over to Beach House’s fifth LP Depression Cherry. Given that I was gazing intently through the small "slit" in the glasses, just above the bridge of these faux-Bans, the timing could not have been better.

Such an innocuous thing was so cosmically perfect because that sort of staring, peering through minutiae with the intensity to cause blindness, is the kind of focus it would take for someone to notice the movement in Beach House's sound over those aforementioned five albums. Beach House, the band’s 2006 debut, might sound like its guitar is on loan and its rickety drum machines from a flooded Guitar Center, but I’m still reminded of the halo effect around light poles on an empty street of a mid-sized city (pop. 100,000) at 2 a.m. on a Sunday night; Bloom from 2012 also does this. It’s like this dulled warmth, perhaps being hugged by someone with snow gloves on, that’s been in Beach House’s blood since the beginning. The gloves have gotten bigger and a little more expensive perhaps, but you can still feel this warmth. A writer for Stereogum, whose name I am genuinely forgetting, compared its subtle expansion of sound to shifting plate tectonics and I think that’s as good a metaphor as will ever be developed to describe its “change” in sound.

The new "accouterments" to Victoria LeGrand and Alex Scally's summer home are first single "Sparks"'s shoegaze, the Perrey-esque synth fade ups on "Space Song," an insistent ticking in "Wildflower" that takes me back to Drive, a propulsive quality in the first five seconds of "Bluebird" that brings to mind Dan Deacon. All of it is fairly new, but none of it feels that way. At no point do the extra wrinkles in the pages make the text unreadable. Shoegaze has so often been concerned with sonic textures that the peeling guitars and vocal shards of "Sparks" make sense. It’s evident that Jean-Jacques Perry's defining ambient piece "Prelude au Sommeil" has its soft hand pushing up the synth fader in "Space Song" because both efforts leave you breathless. Not in the sense that you're choking. No no. That you literally have exhaled your entire body in response to how tranquil the sound is. You have to push the air out just to make room for comprehending the moment. I think of Drive when I hear the ticking of "Wildflower" because it has similar noirish uneasiness. What you once knew to be true and could hold in your hands is slowly slipping out. Which is an awful, terrifying feeling.

If all of this makes Depression Cherry sound obtuse or fey, it isn't. For as airy and ethereal as LeGrand's voice is, she's incredibly grounded. Before she even gets to "Beyond Love"'s chorus she sings "I'm gonna tear off all the petals from the rose that's in your mouth," a detail so lived in and specific you take it for truth. A married couple in "PPP" (Piss Poor Planning) is looking into each other’s eyes and struggling to see anything worth loving anymore, "It won't last forever, or maybe it will" is the figure-8 elliptic she deflatedly croons. The avian of "Bluebird" can't seem to take flight before the penultimate song's trickling keys evaporate into the night air. 

Only on closer "Days of Candy" does the album shuffle off its lyrical mortal coil. And then, it does so by including a 24-part harmony from the Pearl River Community College singers and stating "the universe is riding off with you." Its part hymn, part nursery song, part dirge and one of the most hypnotically ornate things the band has done. Drum machines crackle on a sort of delay and LeGrand's voice echoes like she's the last person on Earth trapped at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. When Beach House goes big, it goes big in a way that would be frightening if for not how lovely it sounds.

And yes love is a common topic, but the love of these characters is just as likely to wither inward as it is to expand outward. What is a warm love song one minute can become a cold elegy the next. Alex Scally's gently flitting guitar can grow loud enough to drown out the hum of an entire city. With Beach House you can see all of these mammoth changes coming from a mile away; you just have to look closely.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

In Revue- 'M3LL155X' (FKA twigs)

I'll admit before I actually heard FKA twigs' surprise EP release M3LL155X my initial reaction was one of concern. Not for anything happening in the UK singer's life or the scant few details I had read about the album. Nay nay.

My concern was for how it would be received. It can be especially hard for artists who come out of the gate with such an assured, specifically styled album as twigs' LP1 to ever capture that zeitgeist again. When an artist brings such force so early, the public expectation machine can go haywire and nothing they do in the wake will live up. See Interpol for some of the "best" proof of the past decade or so. Hell I know people that still insist Kanye West's initial soul-rap period was his best, which is sort of frightening. People cling to first impressions way too much.

Fortunately that's not something to worry about with twigs' M3LL155X (pronounced Melissa). Working with BeyoncĂ© producer Boots, twigs has crafted an album that stands alongside LP1, not in its shadow. There's no feeling of unnecessary duplication. The pair, along with producers Cy An and Tic, take the decaying drum machines and cacophonous noise of LP1 and project them farther outward. "Figure 8" starts with a terrifying low-end burble that gives credence to twigs' exhaling "It's a miracle we're still alive." Hollow ringing tubes hail "Glass & Patron," before a swarm of static comes flying through. Everything is pulverized by drums, which are loud and wobbly enough to cause heart arrhythmia.

That's even true of "In Time," the closest M3LL155X comes to an outright love song. "I will be better and we will be stronger and you will be greater," twigs declares with an uncertain resolve. She chest puffs "You've got a goddamn nerve," but that missive sits atop unstable keys and shifting drums. Nothing feels certain. The Weeknd's own dark R&B has been a comparison point before, but nowhere is the truer than on "In Time." Both artists have a way of sounding resolute, even when everything around them signals chaos. Twigs promises "I'll be home soon" in "Mothercreep"'s swirling outro, though she previously confesses "In words I lose" and "I don't know who my mother is." Realistically there's no home to go home to, just the false ideals of one.

So much of M3LL155X lyrically chases that idea of figuring out who you are when there's no template to go off of. In the aforementioned "Figure 8" she longs to live through someone else's "vice," before acknowledging "you're more alive than what I'll ever be." The admission's doubly painful delivered in a warped vocal that makes you think she's so world-weary she can't even muster the strength to sing for herself. That fragility carries over to "I'm Your Doll" a fetid electro "sex jam" with stereo-panning moans and lines such as "Complete me, I'm here alone." There's a clichĂ© about sex that "you lose yourself in another person," but the character twigs inhabits doesn't seem to have anything to lose.

All of this might sound weak, but there's a profound strength in twigs' naked confessionals. It takes a lot to feel comfortable saying you're alone, especially when you're surrounded by people. Asking your partner to be better is difficult no matter what the relationship is. Though twigs sounds uncertain, it's clear from her latest effort that she knows exactly what she wants.