This week’s roundup of new music features records that I was really looking forward to but that, for one reason or another, haven’t really been doing it for me. Let’s take a look:
I lived in Austin for a couple of years and, really, it was a tremendous place. However, if there was one thing I couldn’t stand about it, it was all the people acting like they were special and unique for enjoying nature’s beauty. It was a one-dimensional, touristy idea of nature based on easy-going vibes and an unquestioning belief in the awesomeness of getting drunk next to a tree.
I thought a lot about that dichotomy while listening to Oshin, the debut LP by Beach Fossils affiliates and spelling bee champions DIIV. The music is pleasant enough to listen to and certainly taps into the kind of hazy joy that Beach Fossils and Real Estate got big trafficking. But there’s a hollowness to the whole record that leaves it empty and unsatisfying.
This big picture problem wouldn’t be as much of a problem were it not for the fact that the album had so little else to offer. The reverb drenched vocals, Neil Young-inspired noodling guitars, and beachy harmonies have become to 2012 what syncopated drum beats and post-punk guitars were to 2002 and samples of atrocious yacht-rock songs were to 2010. The result is an album that goes in one ear and out the other.
In Ian Cohen’s BNM review of the record for Pitchfork, he talks about how DIIV has tapped into something elemental and natural, but have they? The record is closer to the equivalent of a shirtless bro, beer in hand, floating the river on an intertube and talking about how close he feels to nature. The elements that symbolize “nature” are present on the record, but the music is too generic and formed to really back that up. It is a bloodless vision of nature, one drained of any sort of tension or reality so that DIIV could set up a shack and sell guided tours at $20 a ticket.
I don’t really know what else is left to be said about POP ETC, the moment where whatever term you want to use for “R&B music that gets posted to blogs” (I prefer PBR&B) began eating itself. There’s a reason why people don’t look back on Discovery with fondness.
POP ETC seems a little more sincere than that effort, which is almost more of a problem. There’s so little distance between singer Chris Chu and lyrics like “she said why did we bother/I said I’m not your father” that, frankly, its a little embarrassing. With Katy Perry synths and a lot of autotune, the record sounds like it wandered in from 2008, still drunk an unashamed.
I liked The Morning Benders fine, especially their Grizzly Bear-by-way-of-The-Shins second album, and I respect them for following their muse. And some tracks, like “Keep It For Your Own,” show a kind of focus and energy that seemed to be missing from their earlier work. But its clearly an awkward fit that the band is still kind of trying to negotiate.
I’ll admit that its probably a little premature to put the Dirty Projectors on here and I remain open to being convinced otherwise. There are moments that I really love, the spacey harmonies that open “Offsprings Are Blank” and the propulsive immediacy of “Gun Has No Trigger,” but the record as a whole suffers from a little bit of sequelitis. There are no moments as surprising and attention-grabbing as the heights of Bitte Orca (which basically were the entire album from start to finish).
Bitte Orca was one surprise after another, here’s a Beyonce-level R&B song, now here’s a Nico rewrite, now here’s the whatever the hell “Useful Chamber” is. Swing Lo Magellan is more focused and tighter. You could even call it the most distinctly Dirty Projectors record yet, but that’s the problem. The record leans perhaps too heavily on the band’s trademarks, whether its the soaring harmonies or the now-ubiquitous African rhythms.
Furthermore the new wrinkles that they did do nothing but detract from the album. The folky touches, cribbed from Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, make the album sound, at times, empty. Songs like the title track trade away too much complexity in favor of a stripped-down amiability that veers dangerously close to generic. With Woody Guthrie folk music must come politicized lyrics and, once again, the band kind of falls on its face. Dave Longstreth is not quite an effective enough storyteller to pull off the company man tragedy of “Just From Chevron” while “Gun Has No Trigger” is laughably simplistic.
It’s not like Dirty Projectors forgot how to make music and, even listening to the record while writing this, I can feel myself softening. It’s not that Swing Lo Magellan is bad, its just a frustratingly sideways move from a band that has spent the better part of a decade swirling and rushing forward in thrilling ways.