Saturday, 6 June 2009

Rainwater Cassette Exchange - Deerhunter

Prior to the release of Microcastle, Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox professed a deep love of the more obtuse end of 1950s/1960s 'pop', and spoke of how he planned to integrate this into Deerhunter's forthcoming album. While this didn't quite work out what it did highlight was that on Microcastle, after the disturbed and emotionally cathartic squall of their early releases, Deerhunter discovered a new found simplicity.

They have entered a stage in their career development where identifiable musical traits are evident. Vocal harmonies and double tracking, the use of vocals-as-texture, repetition, elliptical song structures and narratives all backed by a propulsive rhythm section have become familiar tropes. The EP is split between the sumptuous avant pop of 'Rainwater Cassette Exchange' and 'Game of Diamonds' and the garage-rock of 'Disappearing Ink', 'Famous Last Words' and 'Circulation', and all these traits are in evidence. Commencing with choppy, reverb-soaked guitars and syncopated bass notes, Cox's fascination for pre-Beatles pop (doo wop and girl groups) is heard in the saccharine opening harmonies of 'Rainwater Cassette Exchange'. This allure takes an increasingly classicist route on 'Game of Diamonds'. Gentle brushed percussion, a languorously strummed acoustic guitar and elegant piano combine to provide a sumptuous backdrop for what is potentially Cox's most beautiful, and most frail sounding, vocal performance committed to record so far.

'Disappearing Ink' and 'Circulation' offer a reconfiguration of the garage rock template, and sound as if the Strokes had added a dose of wistful melancholia to their output rather than degenerating into cod Guns N Roses numbers and karaoke Pogues parodies. The former is relentless, galvanised by Moses Archuleta and Josh Fauver's vigorous rhythm section antics with Cox keening vocals searching for the meaning in words, while 'Circulation' takes this approach but augments it with a dolorous coda.

Nostalgia is a key component of Deerhunter's appeal. There are familiar and obvious antecedents to their 'sound', yet it is the combination of these varied strands of alternate music history that make Deerhunter such an intriguing prospect. Time is frozen, elided, refracted and decelerated, memory is doubled and captured, woven into the very fabric of the recording through the use in 'Circulation' of a collage of radio broadcasts. Hell, the EP has even been released on a cassette format. This reverence for an apparently long abandoned technology displays an attempt at preservation of more fragile and outmoded practices. But these guys are just as comfortable recording on laptops as on tape; they understand the relevance of their influences and lineage and absorb this without allowing this reverence to become too cloying.

Bradford Cox's health issues are well documented (he suffers from Marfan Syndrome, a rare degenerative disease) it is true that it informs the lyrical preoccupations. Or more correctly, it informs our reading of his lyrical preoccupations. Running throughout the EP is an absorption in mortality and disease. The title track, much like 'Agoraphobia' from Microcastle, contains a plea for passive annihilation (“Destroy my mind and my body” is much akin to the plea for the disembodied audience to “Cover me, cover me, comfort me, comfort me”). This predicates the listener as an uneasy spectator, drawn into Cox's stark memories. Mortality and death are approached in lyrical fragments (“Ashes and cinder...I've counted every grain of sand”). This makes the doomed romanticism of statements such as “Do you believe in love at first sight” all the more evocative. The whole edifice is teetering on the point of consumption, which becomes literal in 'Circulation', and particularly its coda. Fragments of found sound and the phantasmagoric descending notes of the organ slowly, inexorably consume and asphyxiate the song.

An EP implies transience, slightness, a place to capture experimentalism. The LP is the place where artists make their mark, make bold artistic statements. But Deerhunter are aware enough to realise the cultural import of the EP, and what role it has historically in an artists development. Just as Fluorescent Grey developed the themes of Cryptograms while simultaneously pointing in a new musical direction, Rainwater Cassette Exchange streamlines the deceptively straightforward sensibilities of Microcastle. The spectral, luminous fog that descends on the middle section of the album is enhanced by dub influenced tape hiss and a similar grasp of spatial possibilities.

While Deerhunter seem to have temporarily expunged the experimental side of their music, no surprise given that both Cox and Pundt have used their respective side projects Atlas Sound and Lotus Plaza as outlets for the more esoteric side of their creativity, Rainwater Cassette Exchange offers a simpler and more unreserved joy. Across their short yet prolific recording career they have already offered a distillation of 50 years of American guitar music. Stunning.

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