The instruments are crying out, where the sympathy at?
I didn’t go see Deerhunter last night in Manhattan, and I’m not going to see them tonight in Brooklyn. I’m moving back to Park Slope this weekend, and that means I have to spend all my evenings putting my stuff into boxes. But I wish I could go see Deerhunter. I’ve been marinating Cryptograms, that band’s newish album, for a few months, but it’s only starting to reveal itself to me. I liked Cryptograms as soon as I heard it, but it didn’t quite excite me. It sounded like a thoroughly professional pastiche of all the drugged-up bands that have been fashionable influences over the past few years: fuzzy ebb-and-crest guitar reveries from Sonic Youth, gentle motorik pulses from Stereolab, disaffected snarl-sneer vocals from Spacemen 3 via Lou Reed. And I didn’t like that the album came loaded down with a bunch of ambient instrumental drones that pretty much sapped all the momentum away. I still don’t like those drones, but it’s slowly become apparent that those pieces are nearly as important to the band’s sense of self as their actual songs are. For that matter, I’m guessing that so are their reportedly chaotic live shows, wherein alarmingly skinny frontman Bradford Cox dribbles fake blood all over himself and writhes around in a grandma dress. Deerhunter, it seems, are not a typical indie-pastiche band. Or more to the point, maybe they are a typical indie-pastiche band who desperately wants to be something more, which might actually be a more tragic and noble condition. At their most accessible, they’re really not all that different from the Ponys or Interpol or any number of repackagers. That tendency is pretty evident on their new drone-free Fluorescent Grey EP, and I like them the best when they’re hewing closest to older blueprints. But Deerhunter never quite resolve their songs the way those other bands do; they leave edges frayed and structures half-built. They plainly pull a whole lot of inspiration from the noise and drone undergrounds; the show they’re playing tonight in Brooklyn is a Lightning Bolt afterparty, for God’s sake. And their admiration for bands like LB shows through in what would otherwise be a really solid set of straight-up indie-rock songs. But they themselves are not a noise band; their pop-song instincts are just too strong. And so that struggle between noise and pop defines them and takes them to really interesting places. Now that I think about it, that struggle is a trait they share with Sonic Youth and Stereolab and Spacemen 3, all of whom were basically straight rock bands enamored of all sorts of messy non-rock stuff. It took a while, but I think maybe I’m starting to really like this band.
I’m maybe also really starting to like another band that engages in a similar sort of noise-pop struggle: the Klaxons. I saw that band when they were on their first American trip late last year, and I was a bit disappointed, mostly because they didn’t sound anything like actual rave music even though their advance hype painted them as the leaders of some imagined nu-rave movement. It took a while for all the herky-jerk caterwauling of Myths of the Near Future, their debut album, to seep in, but it really got under my skin after a month or two. The Klaxons aren’t fundamentally an indie-rock band; they’re something fairly similar, a Britpop band in the mold of Blur circa Parklife. But they aren’t satisfied with being just that, and that’s why they cram their album full of half-realized literary allusions and guitar scrape-squeals and alarmist yelps. They might kick and thrash against the structures that most naturally fit them, but those structures remain intact anyway. That tension became sort of touchingly apparent on Pitchfork’s Guest List feature yesterday. Asked to give his favorite songs of the past year, the Klaxons’ Simon Taylor-Davis first named WZT Hearts‘ “1.” WZT Hearts are an apocalyptically terrifying laptop-noise band from Baltimore, led by a Jason Urich, a friend of mine. WZT Hearts’ early shows were total stomach-churning endurance-tests; I used to joke with Jason about how much I hated them. After a few years, they recruited a drummer and moved in a more rhythmic, tribal direction; weirdly enough, they’re probably musically closer to early-90s acid-house than the Klaxons are. But “1” is still basically a near-impenetrable slab of gutwrench noise-decay, and it’s pretty shocking to see an uber-hyped Britpop upstart bigging it up. Appropriately enough, Taylor-Davis also likes Deerhunter.
Here’s the thing: if Deerhunter and the Klaxons played straight-up noise, I almost certainly wouldn’t like them anywhere near as much as I do. A few years ago, I tried to go see Wolf Eyes at a Baltimore loft party but left hours before they started playing because opener Richard Chartier was giving me a splitting headache. And it’s not like I’ve started feeling more forgiving about this stuff as I’ve gotten older; I tried listening to the new Burning Star Core album today, and I couldn’t get past the nineteen-minute opening track. I really hate the vast majority of this stuff, but I like it when bands who might otherwise be playing some variation on frill-free rock pull inspiration from the structure-free lurch they hear in noise and drone music. See, there are too many rock bands releasing too much rock music; it gets really, really boring. And noise and drone musicians might be free to explore the outer edges of ugliness or whatever, but they’re sort of too free, and most of the time they end up making unbearably pretentious art-wank. But when a rock band tries to play noise music, it can end up with something weirdly glorious, a damaged neon hybrid-style that digs deep into unkempt inarticulable angst without letting its scuzz get too unlistenably repulsive. TV on the Radio have long walked this line, spiking their monolithic prog with desiccated noise-blurts. The Black Dice remixes that DFA keeps releasing harness that Black Dice chaos and turn it into something you can dance to; those remixes always end up sounding better than the original tracks. And I’m anxiously waiting to hear how Bjork deploys one of her new hired hands, Lightning Bolt drummer Brian Chippendale, on Volta. This is fertile territory, the middle-ground between thrashed-out sound-vomit and structured trad-rock. Deerhunter and Klaxons are walking that line, and that line is taking them great places.