Sunday, March 10, 2013

Album Review: Doldrums - Lesser Evil

Album Rating: B-
What if I told you there was a place where the future is now? A place where space cowboys sip neon green drinks and dance with girls in tight poly-fiber jumpsuits and coughing hovercars beep beep their way through crowded airways, all under the watchful eye of the closed-caption television cameras. Now what if I told you that place was Canada? Well, I can’t actually say that with any certainty, but, judging from the prolific output of a myriad of excellent Canadian acts, they clearly know something about what’s coming that we don’t. Yes, from the urban pits of the States’ gentle northern cousin there seems to be arising the 2010’s first great musical movement – slimy, mucky dystopian android dance-pop that may be saying something or nothing at all about society, but is fascinating either way. And now, straight-outta-Montreal, the next regiment in the Trashwerkian army has arrived, and its name is Doldrums.

With his debut effort, Lesser Evil, Airick Woodhead (that’s Doldrums) has made an institution of the work of himself and his peers. While Grimes’ Visions may end up being the school’s greatest classic, this record is quintessential. If you want to understand the current state of electronic pop, start here. The masters are here, in the form of tunes snatched from New Order records and misty atmospheres sucked right from Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works. The influence of German Electro-messiahs can be heard in the strange, chanting synth melodies of the title track, which devolves after a few minutes into what sounds frighteningly like a lost track from My Bloody Valentine’s latest. The sound of the movement is here, from the Crystal Castles-like claustrophobic aggression of “She is the Wave” to the vague, Purity Ring bubblegum of “Sunrise.” Most of all, the mood is here. It’s dance-pop but it isn’t. It’s danceable but it’s creepy as hell. What exactly are these groups going for? That’s a secret only they are in on. We’ll play along for now because it feels so right.

As far as debuts go, this album is certainly ambitious. Woodhead seems unafraid of scaring us off. “Anomaly”, the first track minus the intro, is, as the name suggests, probably the strangest thing on the whole record. It’s not entirely clear that our guy is even a guy until about ¾ of the way through the song, when his hyperealistic falsetto gives way to a split second of baritone. The song is almost totally formless, and not the natural, intuitive, surprising kind of formless that made Visions the marvel that it was. Woodhead’s greatest weakness is being sonically non-committal to the point where he loses his audience, either out of confusion or boredom. Good ideas must be stuck to for some amount of time in order for them to sink in. Woodhead wants to explore every angle of an idea at once, and most of the perks end up being lost in the mess of the ensuing melodic landslide.

Weather the duds, however, and you’re bound to be plenty rewarded. It’s erratic music, but that doesn’t mean Woodhead doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s a textbook knob-fiddler savant. Each distinct piece of each composition gets its own place in the mix so that the record ends up feeling like the product of intersecting radiowaves from parallel dimensions – glowy, hooky synths and melting, malfunctioning television sets live side by side but unaware of one another. “Lost in Everyone” plasters the percussive sound of a city being shelled out over a slow-rising synth ballad and a fickle, smoky key riff. “Egypt,” the album’s bonafide triumph, is a toned dancefloor treasure. Animal Collective’s youthful jubilance meets a viciously dancy beat, a loveable vocal performance, and a scrutinizing attention to detail. The wayward spacecraft seems to be working at full capacity, gears and pistons pumping away without any breaks for pesky drones or tiresome meanders down the path of tunelessness, and it sounds great.

As the album comes to a close, “Painted Black” sends us sliding down a dark highway. “You put the pedal down/Made eyes at the sun” Woodhead squeaks in a sultry but sinister dinnertime voice. We’re leaving behind the sleeplessness of Montreal 2045, but for what?   Even in the future there’s no future. It’s beyond uneasy, trembling synths hitting their marks just a split second off-tempo, bubbles of fuzz sprouting up like spouts of magma shot through a fading analog filter. If you want a happy ending, go elsewhere. Lesser Evil, in all its directionless fluctuation, is a product of chronic uncertainty, a pervasive feeling that informs the work of countless young bands today from the pent up angst of Cloud Nothings to the decadent blankness of M83. Woodhead is somewhere on his way to discovering just what uncertainty looks like in the form of an audio wave. He’s good, and he may get there, but it’ll take time. For now, we just need to enjoy the singles. 

1. Intro
2. Anomaly
3. She is the Wave
4. Sunrise
5. Egypt
6. Holographic Sand Castles
7. Singularity Acid Face
8. Lesser Evil
9. Golden Calf 
10. Lost in Everyone
11. Painted Black

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