Friday, August 24, 2012

ALBUM REVIEW: Dan Deacon - America

By Steve Jones.

Dan Deacon is a Baltimore-based weirdo electronic musician who reached out to other weirdos everywhere with 2007's Spiderman of the Rings. America is his most recent LP, due August 28th on Domino Records.

It was with some trepidation that I listened to America, but not because I don't like Dan Deacon. I love Spiderman of the Rings, and it is one of the best examples of children's music for adults that I can recommend. Bromst, however, I have mixed feelings for. I liked that Dan Deacon was moving forward with his sound, adding more non-electronic instruments and experimenting with different and more minimalist song forms, but the album was very inconsistent. It was, at times, even grating to listen to, despite the fact that the record was nowhere near as obnoxious as Spiderman of the Rings (I mean obnoxious in a delightful sense there). It felt like there were two facets of Deacon--the cartoonish electronician and the serious composer--which were locked in a struggle with one another. Ultimately, I could appreciate Bromst's experiment, but it wasn't consistently successful for me.

America is what Bromst should have sounded like. It's cut from the same mixed-up cloth, but this time it's much easier to tell where the stitching is due to its increased strength. Additionally, and perhaps ironically, America is stronger because it is segregated into two halves. The first half deals with Deacon as the songwriter whom we've come to know and love, while the second half is a proper introduction to Deacon the composer, whose "USA" suite is both this album's (sort of) namesake and its highlight.

The first five songs see Deacon continuing to push his sound, and this time into an extremely noisy territory. Opener "Guilford Avenue Bridge" treats the listener to a full minute of thrashing, grinding, distorted knob twiddling punctuated by a pounding bass drum before anything close to a melody emerges. Even then, the melodic portion is constricted to a low bass hum and twangy synthetic guitar plucks. It's a cacophonous and strangely addicting swirl. "True Thrush" is the best of this first half. It most closely resembles the Deacon of old, including his trademark high-pitched cat vocals, but it also showcases Deacon's growth. There are moments where an ensemble of woodwinds dances and blends in with the electronic voices so well it's easy to miss, but the sound is sublime. "Lots" was the first track to be revealed (as you may recall), and I like it even more in the context of the full album. It's a quick and euphoric assault on the ears.

Noise is not anything new to Dan Deacon's repertoire, and it's not something I praise instinctively (like the use of a saxophone), but its application in this album is stellar. It's a well-balanced noise, unlike the top-heavy Bromst, and it gives America a lot of its richness and edge. It clearly wasn't Deacon's intention to paint a pretty and picturesque portrait of the United States, and anger and ugliness do make their way into the tracks, but each piece retains a beauty, however odd. I don't know if Deacon was going for something as tried and true (and cliché) as "electronic = Man, acoustic = Nature," but this is an album ripe with dichotomy and conflict, despite it ultimately coming across as serene and gorgeous.

The album's weakest moment, for me, is "Prettyboy." Surrounded by music with an edge, the track drips with sweetness, practically oozing molten sugar between the heavenly aria, tinkling xylophone, and fluttering woodwinds. It just sounds so schmaltzy and saccharine, and it feels completely out of place. For other listeners, this might be the album's high point, because it is very pretty, but it's a bit too much for me, especially within the context of America. I'm tempted, given how over-the-top it sounds and given that it's called "Prettyboy," to picture Dan Deacon smirking as hes writes this track, but that doesn't dissuade my opinion of it.

The song cycle wraps up with "Crash Jam," the coldest song on the album. The electronic noises are harsh and industrial, and Deacon's monotone spitting of lyrics is cool and distanced. Like the rest of the album, the song is dense with different sounds, but "Crash Jam" still manages to sound desolate, and that's impressive. Unfortunately, I don't find it as engaging as the rest of the record, and it's an example of where Dan Deacon's songwriting can fall short of his arrangements.

The last 22 minutes of America are taken up by the 4-part "USA" suite, in which Dan Deacon explores new territory and employs a symphonic sound and structure to deliver one of the most satisfying conclusions to an album in recent memory. A full orchestra and Deacon's crazy electronics come together in a synthesis for which Bromst strove, but which America achieves with bombastic success. It's here that you can really hear how much Deacon admires Steve Reich, and I'd be surprised if the subtitles from the 2nd and 3rd parts--"The Great American Desert" and "Rail," respectively--aren't subtle nods to Reich's compositions "The Desert Music" and "Different Trains."

Deacon's "USA" suite is far and away my favorite part of America. I don't know if many other listeners will be as enamored with what is essentially a modern classical piece tagged onto the end of one of the year's big indie releases, but I hope a lot of them will be pleasantly surprised. It reminds me a bit of the criminally underrated The BQE by Sufjan Stevens, which exhibits a similar fusion of symphonic minimalism and avant-garde electronics. "USA," however, is more heavily electronic, and it begs to heard at far too loud a volume. The structure is clever, beginning with a warm and gorgeous procession led by brass and strings. The hugeness of the sound begs the made-up title "Theme of America." Its early inclusion teases at the composition's ending when, almost 20 minutes later, the theme is reprised with both the orchestra and a relentless assault of bleeps and bloops. It's a grandiose send-off to a great album.

America succeeds in revealing that, although it's easy to point out the myriad ways in which this country is shitty, there's still beauty to be found, even at the expense of ugliness. It's funny that the cover is a picture of Lake Placid, because the music is anything but. There was a moment, however, when I finished listening to this album late at night and proceeded to walk home. Perhaps it was because the album blew my eardrums out, but I was surrounded by a calming silence, and everything felt alright. That's what America is about.

Score: Strong 8

(Steve Jones is not making a Bandit Keith joke in this review. However, he may do so on his Twitter @vestenet.)

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