City Paper is not for tourists
“Geezers Need Excitement” isn’t just the best song on the Streets’ Original Pirate Material; it’s also an important critical precept, one worth bearing in mind as you watch your musical heroes grow up. Take Jeff Tweedy, for instance: Like him or loathe him, you gotta admit that the man has rerouted the typical alt-country career path. Post-Tweedy, if you want to be considered a No Depression luminary, the thing to do, it seems, is run as fast as you can away from the genre’s stylistic trappings. The last few Wilco discs, after all, have deployed twang in vanishingly small amounts, favored nonmelodic noise over pretty flourishes of pedal steel, and come equipped with lyrics that once and future Jason and the Scorchers fans are just gonna have to accept as “poetry.”
To be sure, at just 33, Rachel Goswell ain’t a geezer yet. But on the evidence of Waves Are Universal, the singer/multi-instrumentalist’s new solo debut, she does seem to have learned from her elders. To wit: Goswell is best known for her work with the now-defunct Slowdive, the Reading, England, band whose early-’90s output provided a celebrated template for the short-lived but apparently reascendant shoegaze movement. But with Waves, Goswell breaks completely with those wispy melodies, bone-crunching distortion, and debilitating bouts of stage fright of yore, drawing instead on the far more subtle strengths of her current outfit, Mojave 3.
Funnily enough, in the 3, which also features ex-Slowdivers Neil Halstead and Ian McCutcheon, Goswell traffics in dreamy, vaguely psychedelic guitar pop that makes judicious use of pedal steel, banjo, and the kinda-twangy, sorta-trad-sounding chord changes that Tweedy—and plenty of other folks—used to specialize in.
All of which also applies to Waves. Songs such as the disc’s Appalachian-inflected opener, “Warm Summer Sun,” and “No Substitute,” a loping, piano-splashed country-rocker, could easily number among Ryan Adams’ gajillion copyrights. Elsewhere, “Save Yourself” taps into the Southern-accented grunge Neil Young perfected around the time of Live Rust, and the Hammond-organ- and banjo-flecked “Sleepless & Tooting” could be a stray Jayhawks ditty—one, admittedly, with a singer much more enamored of Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser than with a down-home creek-dipper such as Victoria Williams.
Indeed, like Fraser, Goswell is such a fragile-voiced singer that it’s a wonder any of her songs survived the recording process. Actually, some of them probably shouldn’t have: When Waves wanders away from the torch ’n’ twang, it often wallows in treacly, B-grade acoustic pop. And throughout the disc, Goswell’s mopey, lovelorn lyrics never quite get around to having much to say. (A sample: “Dancing on your own again/Lost in movement/Freedom’s calling loud and clear/Take this chance.”) The fingerpicked and glockenspieled “Gather Me Up,” for instance, sounds like a mushy diary entry written while listening to The Best of Bread. And although “Deelay” probably seemed like somebody’s fine idea of a Nick Drake tribute at the time, the beatnik-style guitar-knock percussion ruins the effect completely. “Plucked,” by contrast, is an ill-advised attempt at a Lisa Loeb–like pop song, one that comes complete with a syrupy melody and, um, precisely plucked acoustic guitar.
Those duds aside, however, Waves succeeds thanks to Goswell’s gently playful spirit and her willingness to disregard expectations of what her solo debut was “supposed” to be. There’s the way, for example, that the gentle strumming of “Warm Summer Sun” is suddenly overwhelmed by what initially sounds like some bone-crunching distortion—but turns out to be uilleann pipes. And the way various pastoral sound effects tend to intrude on the various pastoral vibes of the songs—birds, insects, rain, and, of course, waves. Shoegaze nostalgists—some of whom have waited impatiently for this album for years—will be sorely disappointed, no doubt. But that’s part of what makes Waves such an intriguing effort: Nostalgia doesn’t really enter into it. The album’s best bits thread countrified hooks through casually evocative pop songs that are dreamy enough but hardly dream-pop. Indeed, at her best, Goswell appears to be working on a hybrid form—call it shoegeezer—that’s a heckuva lot more exciting than mere revivalism could ever be.
Old-school synth-pop nostalgists, on the other hand, are sure to get a big kick out of Michigan IDM dude Michael Dykehouse’s playful revival of the form on Midrange, a slight but fetching follow-up to 2001’s highly touted Dynamic Obsolescence. If that disc found Dykehouse presenting his hipster-auteur credentials like a cocksure Mensa member, this latest outing is more casual and goofy: It’s the sound of a man getting comfortable in his own robot skin.
On Midrange, Dykehouse searches for and finds IDM’s gnarled roots tangled in the faded, ’80s-era glory of such bands as OMD and—surely you remember—Icehouse. Like those late greats, Dykehouse has a knack for combining can’t-miss synthetic hooks with cheesy but blissed-out melodies. Indeed, if you listen closely enough, you might even hear a snippet or two of a melody that reminds you of the mighty Human League.
Dykehouse certainly shares those bands’ Casio-centric, keep-it-simple-stupid studio ethic. If the press kit is to be believed, the whole thing was recorded on an iMac with just a microphone and a guitar, and the disc’s production values, such as they are, are thin and cheesy enough to support that version of events. “Burden of Proof” may shimmer and shake like vintage Talk Talk, for instance, but the “studio” atmospherics make it sound as if the track were being broadcast from some college radio station that time forgot—one that, try as you might, you can’t quite tune in all the way.
That’s also true of the feets-movin’ “Unholy Fire,” as well as “Make This,” a percolating hip-shaker that tacitly recommends running in place as the latest swanky dance move. (Listen and try to resist the impulse, I dare you.) Other highlights on a disc full of ’em include the lush, discofied “Lost Holiday” and the compact “Garden,” a track that packs more sonic drama into its 43 seconds than a whole shelf of Aphex Twin records. Best of all, though, is “Chain Smoking,” Midrange’s chugga-chugga first single. It’s a tune that would be perfectly placed over the credits of some forthcoming John Hughes film.
All of that said, the early buzz on this record has it pegged as a shoegazer throwback, and I suppose there’s a modicum of truth to that. The low-in-the-mix lyrics are mostly lovelorn and self-effacing, and, yes indeed, pitch-shifted guitars à la My Bloody Valentine do turn up from time to time. But let’s set the record straight: A Flock of Seagulls was pulling that trick back when Kevin Shields was still in diapers, and, song for song, Midrange is way more Naked Eyes than Spiritualized—and all the better for it, too. CP