DEERHUNTER – Cryptograms (Kranky)

December 12, 2008

Yes, I know it’s the old record and there’s a new one out now.

Boards of Canada – that last track on the A Beautiful Place in the Country EP
Spiritualized – Pure Phase / Lazer Guided Melodies
Flying Saucer Attack
My Bloody Valentine (obviously)
CAN – Delay
Broken Social Scene – You Forget It In People

These are the reference points I have divined from this album so far.

Occasionally, thrillingly, pop happens, but overall, it’s an ambient record.  The drummer isn’t great and actually, the drum sound isn’t all that.  The snare sounds a bit weak and tinny.  This is compensated for by most everything else sounding as cool as fuck.

All is distant, reverberating.  Not enough to be right over the horizon, though; the shapes are mostly still solid.

The hook in was the song ‘Strange Lights’.  That was the one I heard on Myspace and kept going back for.  I listen to lots of stuff on Myspace, but this was the first time since Younghusband that I was seduced at first listen.  So many bands wash past me in an, ‘oh, that was OK’, kind of way.  Sometimes, three or four nudges from friends or trusted online sources send me back to the same source to unearth a gem.  It wasn’t like that with these guys.  I was made aware that ‘Microcastles’, the new one, is out already, but because I loved ‘Strange Lights’ so much, I just headed straight for its parent album.

What I know about them is that they are fronted by a gent named Bradford Cox and he very generously distributes his Atlas Sound side project material freely via (address here) – but I can’t tell you anything more about him than Pitchfork or Wikipedia could, so why should I.

Actually. I was going to say ‘when has biography ever been important about an indie band?’  Then I remembered avidly reading Our Band Could Be Your Life, with its fascinating, inspiring chapters on Mission of Burma, The Minutemen, Fugazi and Black Flag.

The Deerhunter story is interesting to me, because they appear to have found a way to be a traditional, even retro indie band in the late ‘00s – and yet be right on the zeitgeist.  Check the Atlas Sound Orange Ohms Glow EP (you might as well, he’s giving it away).  ‘Activation’ – Jesus, it’s the new Pavement!  It has the same warm, wonky glow.  Then there’s a cover of an old Joe Meek song.  This isn’t rocket science, yet it’s become extremely important.  The lineage continues.  A friend of mine nailed it when he described Deerhunter as ‘nothing new or radical, yet … so refreshing’.  It’s a conundrum.  It’s a continuum.  Indie prevails.

So the back-story becomes important.  They blog creatively as well as making music and its all part of the same thing, now.  You have to move with the times.

Anyway, Cryptograms.  Hooked in by ‘Strange Lights’.

First track, called ‘Intro’.  Swoons in with a minute or so of ambience, then in comes the title track, which is savvy as fuck.  Dirty, fast bass, distorted, double-tracked vocals (a typical and creatively well-used Deerhunter trick), a hissing nightmare of feedback, drums that battle in vain to keep up with the impending typhoon.  The vocals get sicklier, more slurred and affected – and compelling – as the guitar swathes become more and more overwhelming.  The bass keeps turning around and around.  This is a brilliant statement of intent.  Our old label boss Tom Rose would be proud. ‘Track two has to be the winner’, he always said.

The album then becomes more meditative.  I think they botched the track order a bit, actually.  ‘Strange Lights’ doesn’t appear ‘til track nine, on the heels of the album’s other stonewall beauty, ‘Spring Hall Concerts’.  Those two should have been split up.  If they’d put either ‘Spring Hall’ or ‘Strange Lights’ in at about track five, momentum would have kept up through the album better.

I like the sprawl of the album, though.  And the outstanding ‘Octet’, programmed in at track six, whilst not a first-listen stunner, soon grows in your perception to become an LP peak.  This is the track that gave me that lushed-out, light, gently cosmic early Spiritualized impression.  Those delayed guitars and the skipping bass, the background layers of reverb.  The repetition, the tension that builds, the release of the hook bass change.  It has that formality that I am in love with and want to get to the bottom of.

It isn’t them at their best, though.

This review has been coloured by the fact that I just heard the delicious ‘Agoraphobia’, from Microcastles, which means I now have to buy that album.  ‘Agoraphobia’ is more grist to my ‘they’re the new Pavement’ mill.  But they’re potentially better than Pavement, because they’re better musicians.  Pavement were so fucking sloppy.  Deerhunter are far from sloppy.  They work hard to mask their deficiencies with production technique.  This is not a ‘warts and all’ endeavour, far from it.   And the more records they make, the better they get.

Is there a bell curve when it comes to creativity?  If there is, I don’t think they have reached the peak of it yet.  I hope not, anyhow.

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