Thursday, July 12, 2012
ALBUM REVIEW: DIIV - Oshin
By Danny Spiteri.
If you’ll excuse the cheesy analogy (no pun intended), I’d like to start by asking you to imagine yourself cooking a box of pasta. It’s not a particularly exquisite strain of noodles; rather, it’s the sort of Kraft knock-off store brand that you can find in your local supermarket, but you’re low on both financial and edible resources, so you’ve decided that it’ll have to suffice. You begin by filling a pot to about two thirds of its capacity with water and setting it on a hot stove. Once it starts to boil, you grab the box and pour its contents into the pot. After about seven minutes have surpassed, you remove the pot from the stove and empty it into a colander which you’ve placed in your sink. The water drains, then you move the pasta back into the pot. You take the packet of seasoning that was included inside the box and rip it open, allowing the powder to provide a light coat atop the pasta. Finally, you look to the side of the box for list of instructions and see the final step: adding the milk. The recipe suggests one fourth of a cup; realizing how bland the flavoring is in such a cheap box of pasta, however, you decide to pour in the entirety of the milk carton, all four cups of it, in order to both offset the dryness and accommodate for the dull taste. Excited to try the result of your altered formula, you eagerly move the pasta into a small bowl and place it on your kitchen table. You sit down, fork in hand, and lower it into the dish, pulling out your first bite. Your tongue touches the spoonful, and you taste... nothing. Looking down in disappointment, you realize that your meal resembles little more than macaroni 'n' milk soup. You notice upon closer examination that nearly all the flavor powder has been rinsed away by the excess of milk, leaving you with nothing more than a bowl of white, tasteless pasta. What was mediocre before is now almost completely flavorless, and instead of a subpar yet passable result, you are stuck with something even more nondescript and forgettable.
Imagine this analogy again, replacing the pasta with a band, the flavoring with the character of their music, and the milk with reverb. Like the milk in this recipe, reverb is certainly a necessary component of the music, but in a case of overuse, it can drown it out of its personality. This concept of moderation is something that DIIV, the project of Beach Fossils guitarist Zachary Cole Smith, does not seem to understand. Although the band's combination of influences from dream pop, shoegaze, and post-punk shows hints of potential throughout the forty minutes their debut album, Oshin, spans, most of this succumbs at the hand of their insistence on dousing their music so heavily in reverb. Simple yet decent vocal melodies are obscured behind walls of generic guitar tones, bass lines establishing commonplace chord progressions, and repetitive drum beats. Some of the hooks warrant inevitable toe-tapping, but the flaccidity of their delivery makes for only a mild stimulation. This and the lack of variety between tracks leaves the album feeling like little more than a formless mess of monotony.
My intention is not to undermine any of the genres by which DIIV are influenced. Shoegaze and dream pop have yielded wonderful results in the past, but such successful artists have certain defining elements which lend them memorability, elements which DIIV lacks. Whereas My Bloody Valentine immerses the listener in intricate layers of sound (among many other strong assets, of course), DIIV offers sheets of tame atmosphere. Cocteau Twins excels largely on the idiosyncratic vocals of Elizabeth Fraser; Cole Smith, on the other hand, sings with the sort of inflection that can be found easily within 30 seconds of surfing through the "indie pop" tag on Bandcamp. Even the post-punk rhythms employed by former Smith Westerns drummer Colby Hewitt feel neither driving nor hypnotic as they often do in their native context. While I understand that DIIV is most likely not trying to break new ground with Oshin as the aforementioned artists did, they are so content with taking a safe route that they fail to carve out a unique niche in the landscapes of these genres.
Despite its general monotony, there are a few relieving exceptions to Oshin's normally stagnant formula. The melody that fronts "How Long Have You Known," though not exactly stunning, is relatively catchy and stands a notch above the others on the album. "Doused" finds DIIV exploring their post-punk influences to a notable extent with acceptable results. The bass line that opens the song provides a somewhat sinister atmosphere throughout the track's duration, and Cole Smith's vocals feel slightly more urgent than they usually do. I can't help but wonder if the record would have been more pleasurable if the band had developed this darker, minor-keyed side more.
Unfortunately, for every positive moment, there is a handful of negative ones. I question the purpose of instrumentals "(Druun)" and "(Druun Pt. II)," which display a glaring lack of direction, and consequently feel like unnecessary filler. The percussion-less closer "Home" could have been a cathartic comedown, but instead feels like an underwhelming attempt at a conclusion. The remainder of Oshin falls into the category of faceless tedium that too accurately sums up the release. I wouldn't call this album offensively bad, just offensively boring. Although I can appreciate how easily digestible and aesthetically friendly the record is, it ultimately flies rather swiftly through one ear and out the other, leaving hardly a speck of a mark on the way.
A flaw in my opening analogy is that DIIV are not drenching their music in reverb merely to mask how dry and uninteresting it is otherwise, but also largely as a stylistic choice. It isn't just DIIV doing this; in fact, reverb-soaked guitar pop is an extremely popular sound in indie rock at the moment. Quite frankly, however, I am sick of it. I am sick of artists condensing shoegaze and dream pop into such a watered down formula, sick of reverb being abused to the point of consuming individuality, and sick of the popular approach to the genres being one that feels so emotionally detached. To me, DIIV is the amalgamation of each of these issues, and a sign that this brand of revivalism truly has run its course. I can only hope that I am right and that indie rock begins to move into more interesting and creative territory; otherwise, it will just be beating a dead horse.
Score: Strong 4
(Are you as tired of this sound as I am? Or do I "just not get" it? Let me know on Twitter.)