Monday, May 13, 2013

Album Review: Deerhunter - Monomania

Album Rating: B-
Rock in the 21st century seems riddled with messy contradiction. That same music that was once revolutionary, pulling dirty-haired kids up from their well-set dining room tables and plopping them in the mud, seems now the standard soundtrack for complacency. Graying politicians spend their lobby-laced paychecks on iPod’s stuffed with Zeppelin and the Stones, presumably finding “Sympathy for the Devil” endlessly relatable. The coolest new record someone’s calling “lo-fi” sounds more like a tight-jeans daydream complete with finely-tuned levels of reverb sloshing away all hints of flaw and humanity and turning all tones to a pretty little chime. Hey hey, my my, rock and roll will never die, but it will get old and wrinkly, and its knees are already starting to hurt.

Underground poster-boy Bradford Cox is this strange status quo personified. For our times, he represents the quintessential “Strong Frontman”, masterminding several big-time indie groups with a handful of lauded albums, collaborating with top-name contemporaries, and, of course, causing plenty of silly trouble for the media to lap up with hungry eyes. He’s a real personality. “Oh no, Bradford’s at it again.” “I’m gonna go to the Atlas Sound show just see what crazy hijinks Bradford gets in to.” Here’s the paradox - Bradford Cox is not a strong frontman. The latest record from his flagship band Deerhunter, Monomania, is less of a defining moment of cracking than a culmination of mounting evidence concerning his utterly bizarre state of big-time mediocrity, a symptom of rock and roll’s Great Middling.

There’s a pointedly different atmosphere surrounding Monomania when compared to the band’s earlier work. It’s easy to think for a second that Cox has made some radical departure from the glossy, arpeggiated dream-state of 2011’s Halcyon Digest. While the frizzy, fussy songs here slightly outnumber the clean, not a lot has really changed. Think of each record as a live show. For Digest, the guys were playing a trendy restaurant with an open air balcony, $60 entrees, and servers dressed in tuxes. The next day, they roughed up their outfits a bit and headed for a gig at the bar downstairs where red-neon hides most of the moldy filth calcifying on the wet wood floors. In the end, at both shows, all they were really playing was background music.

Three points don’t necessarily make a trend, but it seems Deerhunter’s legacy peaked with 2008’s Microcastle. I’m not sure if Cox has grown comfortable and thus careless since his 2011 stint as critical darling, or if Monomania constitutes an attempt to zap life back in to the project. At any rate, the main distinction between this and past work is his vocal style. It’s as if he took what could have (mostly) been outtakes from the last two records and, this time, instead of whispering, coughed out the lyrics. If nothing else, it’s a fascinating revelation in terms of musicology. It’s apparent now: psychedelic music comes from the chest, garage rock comes from the throat. 

By this time, you’re probably clamoring for me to get back to my as-of-yet undefended claim concerning Cox’s poor frontmanship. It’s a multifaceted problem, but it probably starts with Julian Casablancas. Cox has been garnering comparisons to the Strokes singer since the Microcastle-era. Two or three tracks from Halcyon Digest could have easily been (admittedly better) cuts from the Strokes album that came out the same year, with minimal adjustment. Now, with Cox embracing some new, more ‘rock n’ roll’ aesthetic, the Casablancas inside keeps seeping out. He’s adopted the guy’s vocal ticks, fuzzed out his voice in the same way, and even reenacted the same late-night antics (see the dramatic conclusions of this & this). The problem: Casablancas himself isn’t particularly strong frontman. The Strokes career was marred by accusations of lack of originality. In the end, basing his strategy on Casablancas has left Cox a fifth generation knock-off, his lineage starting with Mick Jagger, who got copped by Bowie, whose style floated in and out of Joey Ramone’s head, and then across time and space into the genesis of Is This It. Most of these names brought something new to the table. Casablancas barely scraped by, but his Generation X ennui lent him personality. So, what’s Bradford’s mark? Controversy? Been there. 

Particularly considering the dynamics of Deerhunter, with Cox representing some kind of press/public icon of independent culture, the frontman has a responsibility to drive the band’s sound forward with confidence and consistency. Maybe Cox is confident in his personal life. As a band leader, he’s jello. Everywhere he expounds his new rough and tough persona, it sounds like a bit of a joke. The horrific “Pensacola” is the album’s deepest trough. Ugly, sketchy, and amateurish, the song is a swing at old-fashioned garage blues that ends up sounding like a tactless parody of the painful roots of rock and roll. The instrumentals are alright, more than passable. It’s Cox’s delivery that leaves me cringing. The same goes for the following track, “Dream Captain”, which could be pretty good if it weren’t for a certain someone on the mic hissing with the most obnoxious snarl “I’m a poor boy from a poor family/I ain’t got nobody left to take care of me.” 

The band sound at their most natural, Cox included, when playing the atmospheric, lounging tunes they’ve gotten used to over the past five years. “The Missing” is a particularly catchy, cloudy number, and the shivery “Nitebike” does everything Halcyon Digest’s “Sailing” tried and failed to do thanks to excessive slinking. Sometimes, in a great convergence, they even manage to draw beauty out of their misguided rockification. The blistering scrawl at the end of “Leather Jacket II” is just the right amount noise and tune, and the near-3-minute chant section of the title track (“Monomonomania, monomonomania!”) almost goes by too fast. 

The really excellent parts of Monomania are the most frustrating, offering tiny glimpses of the great record that could have been. Bradford Cox, for all his zany antics off-stage, has set his band on a course for dullness, and the highlights simply can’t outweigh the endless faux-pas and slip ups. It’s still not too late. If he can calm his ego, relinquishing his spot as one of indie’s loose cannon celebrities, he may be able to reclaim his seat as one of its greatest artistic hopes.

1. Neon Junkyard
2. Leather Jacket II
3. The Missing
4. Pensacola
5. Dream Captain
6. Blue Agent
7. T.H.M.
8. Sleepwalking
9. Back to the Middle
10. Monomania
11. Nitebike
12. Punk (La Vie Anterieure)

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