It was easy, about 12 or 13 years ago, to dismiss British label 4AD as all sizzle and no Boca Burger. From the “peanut butter, peanut butter, peanut butter” mantras of Cocteau Twins to the shoegazer fuzz-outs of the Pale Saints to the Sunday-morning pocket symphonies of label chief Ivo Watts-Russell’s This Mortal Coil, 4AD was less a label than a badge of post-goth identity, a total package of blissful soundscapes, snappy typefaces, and blurry photos.
As one-dimensional as that sometimes made the imprint seem, 4AD had another side, one defined by Watts-Russell’s love of weird American pop such as the Beach Boys and Big Star. After all, he signed both Throwing Muses and the Pixies—A&R decisions that became increasingly hard for the mainstream music industry to ignore as bands inspired by those Bostonians—most prominently Nirvana—began to scale the charts at the dawn of the ’90s. When Pixies bassist Kim Deal’s side project, the Breeders, took off like, well, a cannonball not long afterward, 4AD was clearly no longer the exclusive domain of chain-smoking, velvet-garbed vegans.
His Name Is Alive’s Warn (aka Warren) Defever once echoed the label’s schizophrenia beautifully: By 1990, when HNIA released its ethereal first LP, Livonia, on 4AD, he had already put out two albums’ worth of “hellbilly” with his brother’s group, Elvis Hitler. HNIA quickly became Defever’s focus, though, as his meditations on crumbling marriages, seizures, and madness—voiced by an ever-changing cast of transcendent female singers—struck a chord with 4AD’s core consumers.
It was those same cool customers I saw fleeing, man-purses clutched to their spindly chests, from an HNIA appearance at New York’s Knitting Factory last year. The latest version of Defever’s group was a virtual jazz odyssey, sporting a gospel-trained vocalist and a groovy bass player with a white man’s Afro, and riddled with Defever’s drawn-out, beer-commercial-style guitar solos. Like HNIA’s concurrent LP, Someday My Blues Will Cover the Earth, the show seemed like a perverse attempt to completely alienate anyone who’d ever liked the band—or, if not that, an artistic advancement of the type mere mortals aren’t meant to understand. (Think Lou Reed’s entire post-Velvet Underground career or Garth Brooks’ In the Life of Chris Gaines.) The possibility that Defever had actually grown to like such shitty bar-band rock was too confusing and/or depressing to entertain.
With the new Last Night, though, any hopes that Defever has transcended the bounds of quotidian taste—or is at least still joking—are as remote as the chart aspirations of the current Breeders lineup. The album drives a final, funky nail into Defever’s previous work, with things going south almost immediately: Last Night opens with a sound wash of the type that used to punctuate more worthy HNIA LPs such as 1991’s Home Is in Your Head and 1993’s Mouth by Mouth, but a Steve “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” Gadd-worthy drum figure blows a hole through the trademark haze after a mere minute and a half.
And who should disco-strut through that hole but a more confident edition of the same band I saw at the Knitting Factory, gleefully laying down the type of lubricious groove one usually hears only when Saturday Night Live goes to commercial. Touches of the old weirdness remain—the spooky and restrained “Do You Want to Come to My Party” wouldn’t have been out of place on Home Is in Your Head, and “I Can See Myself in Her” finds vocalist Lovetta Pippen empathizing with child-murderer Andrea Yates—but almost any trace of the old spark is dampened by the band’s allegiance to oily jam-band workouts.
As the album progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to figure out just who the hell is Defever’s target audience: His lyrics are way too weird for the folks who normally go for this type of music (sample lines: “I have been fasting/Since the beginning of the world/When flowers covered the earth”), and his newfound love of rump-shaking must terrify the wispy aesthetes whose psychoses he used to tickle so effectively. That’s not to say Last Night doesn’t have its moments, notably the cover of the old Equals chestnut “Teardrops” and the splendid Neil Young-meets-Carl Jung epic “I Have Special Powers.” But those pleasures are far too fleeting, and to wholeheartedly recommend the album to anyone without a superhuman sense of pastiche would be dishonest.
Sybarite’s 4AD debut, Nonument, by contrast, is almost unbearably precious—which to any true fan of the label probably seems just about right. Take the goofy orthography of band auteur Xian (aka Christian) Hawkins’ first name (whatever you think about Christina Aguilera, she performs a valuable public service by reliably drawing seemingly innocuous affectations into sharp, harsh focus) and add it to his tendency to build tracks around bird calls and pleasant synth burbles, and you’ve got the kind of minimal-techno artiste who not only seems tailor-made for some fancy 4AD packaging but is also a whole heck of a lot easier to listen to than, say, Pan Sonic.
It should go without saying that naming a song after a famous architect (“Renzo Piano”) doesn’t necessarily add any heft to your music, but that’s the kind of pretentious bullhockey the Brooklyn-based Hawkins (and his label) needs to shovel if he’s going to catch freshman-year art students before their infatuation with Morrissey wears off and they discover Sigur Ros. Titles aside, though, a lot of Nonument is a pretty darn nice experience.
“The Accidental Triumph,” though not quite living up to its billing, hikes through the record’s pastoral vibe with nary a hint of menace. “Homegrown Cultures” recalls early Aphex Twin, back when the teenage Richard D. James was retrofitting Brian Eno’s ambient records with funked-up percussion. And “Leap Year” hammers its repeating figures into your memory with a four-on-the-floor bass drum and some spitting synthesizers that sound almost human.
Elsewhere, Hawkins bumbles through the ether as agreeably as his 4AD predecessors, busing in goth icon Jennifer Charles for breathy-vox duties on “The Fourth Day” and adding other nice touches such as jazzy horns and pseudo-classical flourishes hither and yon. And when he’s really switched on, as on the vocal numbers “Water” and “Fresh Kills,” Hawkins is as good as any soundscaper this side of Cologne. That doesn’t mean Nonument is a great record—but at least it’s one that longtime followers of Sybarite’s label will know how to process. CP