May 13, 2013
Thanks to NPR Music’s “First Listen” series, Deerhunter’s new album Monomania has had two weeks to seep in. It soon became apparent that this album was a marvelous continuation of the Atlanta-based band’s arty noise-pop sound. Any doubts about this album for this writer lasted only halfway through the band’s premiere of the title track on Jimmy Fallon’s late night show a few weeks ago. Deerhunter would give one of the most brilliantly subversive television performances I had ever seen. Lead singer/guitarist Bradford Cox hid most of his face under a disheveled mop of a jet-black wig. He gripped a microphone on a stand with his right hand and snarled through the song. But the scene-stealer was a missing middle finger on his left hand. His face mostly hidden, one could not help but notice the bandaged and bloody nub where one of his fingers should have been. Though later proven a stunt (he had just curled up his finger and wrapped it tight), this “prop” raised the performance to an entrancing level, especially when one has to think what this might do to the guitarist/songwriter’s process considering the wall-of-guitar sound of Deerhunter.
Then, a little more than halfway through the song, as the band dove into a roaring cacophony of dueling guitars, Cox walked off the stage. A cameraman followed him backstage, as his mates bent over their respective instruments to squeeze the life out of their strings, seemingly oblivious to the disappearance of their frontman. Guitars still wailing in the distance, Cox walked past a couple chatting in a backstage hall, snatched a cup from a woman yapping and either chugged the cup of water or threw it in his own face (I can’t recall, the video is no longer on-line). With the band members still pounding on their instruments, he walked over to an elevator and pressed a button, as “Monomania” came to a sputtering end. Fallon walked over to the stage holding a vinyl copy of the album. “Deerhunter, everybody!”
This is the genius that informs this music that I have consistently celebrated since I first heard of Deerhunter via their third album, 2008’s Microcastle. Three albums later and Deerhunter have not lost their touch to these ears. The new album opens with two noisy tracks with vocals so loud they rattle eardrums, distorting beyond perception of lyrics as guitars screech and shimmer, dipping into sporadic bits of feedback. Then comes relief in “The Missing,” a pretty melody crafted by guitarist Lockett Pundt, who also has a noteworthy solo project called Lotus Plaza. Pundt’s shy, breathy singing is the perfect complement to the delicate songcraft: pretty guitars and synths sighing an iridescent harmonic whoosh under the bright guitars. None of these songs on their own would feel as potent taken out of the context from one another. It’s a great bit of dichotomy. To reduce Deerhunter as a grungy shoegaze/noise pop outfit interested solely in reverb is to overlook the patchwork brilliance of the entire experience of its albums.
Last week, the vinyl version of Monomania arrived, and it provided yet another layer of revelation. What becomes immediately noticeable, thanks to the clarity of vinyl, is the acoustic guitar strumming within the din of the opening track, “Neon Junkyard.” There are also various whirs and fizzes that comprise the noise from unknown sources. The lyrics are also clearer, and the first line may as well be Deerhunter’s manifesto: “Finding the fluorescence in the junk/By night illuminates the day.”
The great thing about noise pop albums on vinyl is how the format clears up the din like a high-definition video screen. There is finesse in the racket. The clarity of the instruments, from the strum of acoustic guitars to the pluck of bass strings, pops out with not just crispness but dynamism. “Blue Agent” contains a staccato lead guitar line the oozes liquidity. However, its terse delivery features a new dynamic in each pluck on vinyl. The sonic range via vinyl turns what could be regarded as a cute gimmick in playing to elevating the song with a deeper character that sounds far more human and real.
“T.H.M.” opens with a delicate guitar line and soft beat decorated with a shaker. The song picks up on a sprightlier beat with hand claps as another guitar jumps in to add another terse melody before returning to the more spare verse. The kicker comes when Cox supplements his growling lyrics with a chorus of asthmatic coughs.
Side two opens with a billowing whir and then bright guitars drive the song along toward a chorus featuring an echo effect capping off the end of each line Cox sings before more guitar strums pile up to swell and suddenly back off and let the initial hook trot along to the song’s finale. It’s a brilliant tease of noise versus melody. In fact, this side more than side one features the catchier tunes and reveals the early ‘90s/late ‘80s noise pop sonic influence from bands like Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement. However, whereas those bands were usually against keeping keyboards and keeping synths out of the mix, Deerhunter has no fear of using them to supplement its sound. Then again, there is that roar of an outboard motor that takes over from the crush of screeching guitars at the end of “Monomania.”
Beyond the gritty sound juxtaposed with brightness are the dark lyrics by Cox. That’s where the true heart of darkness of this album lies. As bright as “T.H.M.” sounds musically, the lyrics reference a violent death (“Took two bullets to the brain”) coupled with “coming out” and insanity. Throughout Monomania, the lyrics seem to wallow in misunderstanding and a frustrated solitude. It comes from a very real place, as Cox rarely sentimentalizes his homosexuality. Even Pundt’s only song, “the Missing,” fits the vibe of the album lyrically.
Deerhunter has always known its way around darker subject matter, and such deep exploration births an honest sound that does not always produce pure melody. The members of Deerhunter consistently prove themselves crafty with guitars and pop songs, but they know how to dig deeper to offer something much more dynamic with not only volume but cacophony. As ever, Deerhunter proves there is a beauty in noise. Monomania may have frayed and weathered edges but it’s representative of a real humanity beyond the songcraft.
Jose Ferrer, aka Boxwood, is a bit of a deconstructionist. He showed up at Sweat Records in Miami a couple weeks ago to talk about how he puts together luscious, noisy, catchy, swirling sounds of noise pop as a solo musician using loop pedals, guitar and percussion instruments, with a box of hacked up vinyl records refitted as CD covers for his first EP, “Sun Garden City.” His idea of CD packaging is useless 12-inch dance records. “It’s serving a purpose,” he says of the vinyl records re-purposed as gatefold CD cases, adding that the records he butchered are around six years old and no one would care to use them on the dance floor nowadays. A DJ friend of his gave him a stack to sacrifice to a buzz saw. “We saved the good stuff,” Ferrer says, assuring that he still loves the vinyl format. Here’s an example of the EP folded open, outside and in:
The small, elfin musician is soft-spoken and looks 10 years younger than his 33 years of age. It’s hard to believe this guy has a 10-year history as an acoustic strumming singer-songwriter in New York City before becoming Boxwood, a creature far evolved from acoustic guitar and voice, now residing in the low-key suburbs of Hollywood, Florida. He does his best to answer questions about what lead him to his distinctive sound but often mumbles and stumbles for words. This is clearly a musician who prefers to have the music do the talking for him. “I hate promoting,” he finally admits. “You have to be on top of people. It would be easier if I had some kind of management or something.”
Of course, he is talking about setting up shows and releasing records and then having to deal with their promotion, but he might as well be talking about talking about life when the music stops. He perks up when asked about the experience of being in the music, be it on stage or in the studio. “The music comes first. I like performing … I like the recording process. I compiled a bunch of stuff from the time in New York, when I came here [in 2006]. I printed out a CD full-length of songs from a span of 10 years. It’s a lot of the singer-songwriter stuff. I made 1,000 and still have 980 but I forget to get them [they are sitting in storage somewhere in New York]. I’m gonna have them if someone is curious. It’s still me, but it’s not representative of Boxwood.”
He left behind that singer-songwriter sound a long time ago for something decidedly more original and distinctive featuring a treated acoustic guitar that sounds electric and a variety of percussion instruments recorded and looped through effects pedals. “I’ve been to so many open mics. At least in New York, there’s like a million singer-songwriters,” he says. “You get sick of it. I can’t sit and listen to it. It gets boring. Not that it’s not good. I just can’t do it anymore. I did a lot of it. The thing that draws me now [to music] is really getting a nice sound out of the equipment.”
By “the equipment” he might as well be talking about his voice as well as guitar and percussion, which he often buries and treats with echo, submerging it into the swirl of reverbing sounds looped through pedals. Boxwood’s sound recalls the dream pop of bands like My Bloody Valentine or the heavily affected recordings of Deerhunter. “I used to focus more on my lyrics. I was more of a singer-songwriter prior to getting into the pedals. It was very vocal, lyric-based, but since then I have been trying to get away from that to just make the music more interesting,” he explains.
He performs live using the pedals to create a wall of beats and melodies and captured it on his new EP with minimal, if any, studio tricks. “I wanted the same sound as I have live,” he says. “It’s all recorded from the same loops that I do with all my equipment. Nothing was MIDI. I didn’t add any other instruments. It’s just kind of what I do live.”
Upon hearing “Sun Garden City,” beyond the layers of guitars, the polyrhythmic quality of the beats standout. Being a teen in New York, the rise of hip-hop in pop music did not escape Ferrer. He says he was 12 when he started really noticing the presence of hip-hop artists on MTV back in 1994. “Hip-hop had so much personality back then,” he says. “Rhythmically, I like the sound of the drums, which are samples of old drums of funk and soul.”
The results are smartly constructed pieces of blissed out layers of melody and noise. “Balance” opens “Sun Garden City” with a beat composed of clicks, rattles and thudding booms before a guitar coats the fuzzy rhythms with quavering noise that seems so high in treble it occasionally squeaks. Then Ferrer begins his terse, breathy and occasional growls from what sounds like the depths of a well. It’s all tinny, catchy rhythmic din until the beats halt to highlight the quavering guitars and Ferrer repeats “untie me” over and over, as if on over-lapping loops. An inspired wash of soft, synthesized drone or hum glistens over the final seconds of the track, bringing it to another level.
“Palisade” follows, raising the dramatic dynamics to an even more exuberant level. Ferrer’s lyrics become a little less easier to understand, as he spews his words with a forced pressurized delivery. The percussion has been changed up to something lighter, sparse and more wooden but just as dynamic in its qualities as “Balance.” The guitars offer a prettier side to Ferrer’s melodic capabilities and there’s even a swelling sting of a drone. A demonstration of how he puts together the loops that make up the track can be watched on Boxwood’s YouTube channel, here:
From that humble beginning (and it is just a beginning), the results are amazing on record. Ferrer’s has offered “Palisade” as a free MP3 download here, so you can hear the difference. Across the six tracks of the “Sun Garden City,” which also include an atmospheric, rhythmic instrumental interlude, the music never relents. Boxwood is one inspired creature and proves there are not many limits to acoustic guitar and percussion.