Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Washed Out - Life of Leisure

Dream-pop. Chillwave. Whatever you want to call it, this has been the year for lo-fi, 80’s inspired, and incredibly catchy music. Washed Out, the aptly chosen pseudonym for former South Carolinian Ernest Greene, is yet another artist who has transformed traditional electronic music into dreamy pop that sounds both new and old at the same time (i.e., Toro Y Moi, Neon Indian, Nite Jewel, etc.). However, on his EP – “Life of Leisure” – Greene establishes a voice that will most likely resonate long after this musical trend fades. The record can certainly be enjoyable on a “chillwave” or “dream-pop” basis, but its pop underpinnings – arresting hooks, impressive and consistent harmonies, relatable lyrics of longing, etc. – are remarkably unique, or at the very least just damn good, setting Washed Out apart from his numerous contemporaries. Tracks like “Feel It All Around” and “New Theory”, for instance, are indeed dreamy, but they are also solid pieces of music that are powerful and accessible from beginning to end. That is, Greene’s techniques here are not novelties: the effects of his songs are not contingent upon elements related to musical fads, nor are they unnecessarily dense and cumbersome to prove his distinct prowess. The driving beats and beautifully vague harmonies of album highlight “You’ll See It” illustrate Washed Out’s current sound best. The track reveals a playful sound that exploits or at least makes use of the recent fascination with retro dream-pop, but it is so infectious, stunning, and surprisingly haunting that one cannot help but notice that Greene is in a league of his own. “Life of Leisure” is also evidence that he has room to mature and develop his sound, but unlike some musicians, I am actually interested in watching him grow.

Memory Tapes - Seek Magic

Dayve Hawk, the man behind Memory Tapes, seems to love New Order. He also seems to be a fan of acts like Cut Copy, the Rapture, and Hercules and Love Affair. With this in mind, it would be fairly easy to call Memory Tapes’ debut LP just another hipster, 80’s inspired dance record. However, such a hasty generalization is problematic when one considers the disparate (and odd) assortment of sounds illustrated on “Seek Magic”: crickets, barking dogs, indistinct noises from a gym floor, etc. I should mention upfront, then, that “Seek Magic” requires repeated listens. It is not simple or predictable. Rather, it is a complex arrangement of seemingly disjointed yet entirely cohesive tracks.

It is clear early on that “Seek Magic” aims to challenge the sounds that conventionally define dance music. As if to foreshadow subsequent tracks and the album in general, opener “Swimming Field” goes in one direction but changes its course drastically before ending. It begins and continues for a while as a relaxed, almost repetitive type of “chillwave”, but toward its conclusion a surprising burst of driving percussion transforms the sound completely. The rest of the album, too, combines various music styles successfully, and that is perhaps its greatest strength. Arguably the album’s best track, “Graphics” is the strongest and most curious amalgamation of sounds. Some of dance music’s best features are represented here: house or techno inspired verses, quintessentially 80’s pop choruses, and danceable yet extremely powerful drone breakdowns that seem to deconstruct the piece entirely (ala Fuck Buttons, HEALTH, etc.).

In showcasing these diverse styles, Hawk is not subtle with his influences. The work is not derivative, however. One can trace his influences, but he uses them to create a unique sound and supplement his own vision. “Bicycle” highlights New Order guitar and Duran Duran bass, but these elements are only parts of a wholly unique, multi-layered blend of harmonies and disco and club beats. Interestingly, “Plain Material” sounds a lot like Passion Pit’s playfulness during the choruses (if they can be called “choruses”), but that dance-pop sensibility is juxtaposed with a surprisingly straightforward guitar and vocal delivery. Such unusual combinations usually do not work or at least seemed forced. “Seek Magic”, on the other hand, works very well.

This is not a perfect album, but it is a refreshing collection during a year saturated musically with so much of the same. Again, many of these overdone dance techniques are noticeably present on “Seek Magic”, but they are combined unconventionally – in seemingly unrelated ways. More importantly, such unusual arrangements work so well because they advance Hawk's unique and exciting approach to dance pop. His influences are evident, but his own distinct ability to create both fun and striking arrangements is what underlies the entire record.