Monday, April 7, 2008

Asa Breed (Black Edition) - Matthew Dear

Asa Breed (Black Edition)

Matthew Dear
Ghostly International Records.

SCQ Rating: 77%

Since I’m the kind of record-buyer who enjoys buying new music on the day of its release, I don’t often get the thrill of owning specialty reissues armed with bonus tracks and cooler artwork. So when bands I dig put out ‘Tour Edition’ copies of their CD or decide to re-release their older material with double-disc treatment, I curse my eagerness. When techno-whiz Matthew Dear's latest was first released in the summer of 07, I downloaded several songs and put it on my extensive list of discs to buy… but never got around to it. So when my girlfriend came back from New Hampshire with a wrapped up copy of the newly released, U.S.A.-only, Asa Breed Black Edition for me, I was pretty damn excited. Yes, this is one of the few cases where my apathy paid off.

One of the reasons I kept the purchase of this CD on the backburner for so long is that my initial listens left me unsatisfied. Because it was praised as an electro-pop record and compared by many critics as similar to the work of LCD Soundsystem, I’d take a burned copy of my makeshift Asa Breed album to work and let it play in the background. That was my first mistake – treating it like an extroverted album – which led into the assumption (and my second error-in-judgement) that this might not be a record worth owning. Both of these seemingly harmless actions were immediately understood once I put the Black Edition through my headphones last week.

Despite the dance pedigree that Dear has earned, Asa Breed’s deep bass and beat patterns distracted me from what my headphone experience pointed out: there is a hell of a lot happening on this record, most of which I would’ve never caught over that shoddy stereo at work. ‘Deserter’ and ‘Don and Sherri’ are clear standouts from any speakers, but upon close inspection, Dear has put his all into songs like the rackety dance-chant ‘Fleece on Brain’ or the bluesy electronics of ‘Good to be Alive’; dance tracks that are given the pop hooks to transcend music boundaries. While that alone might warrant the LCD comparison, Dear has used the same recipe to create a drastically different result; where James Murphy clung to his hipster record collection for inspiration, Dear’s quiet eccentricities alone make this an impressive and bizarrely original pop record.

Much of Dear’s personality can be felt in his vocals; an aspect of Asa Breed that many saw as a hindrance. And while I initially agreed that his vocals weren’t spectacular, I never considered that maybe Dear wasn’t aiming for pleasant sing-alongs. As proven by ‘Death to Feelers’ or the lush ‘Deserter’, Matthew Dear is a completely serviceable singer… he just isn’t content to rest on that. Pick just about any song on Asa Breed and you’ll find several layers of vocals: a high-strung soulful voice and a small chorus of speak-singers, both anchored by Dear’s natural baritone. Together, these multi-tracked voices create a purposefully strange combination – an organically constructed electronic tone, if you will – that gives an otherworldly feel to the killer chorus of ‘Don and Sherri’ or the candle-lit slowburner ‘Will Gravity Win Tonight?’. Careful listening will also unveil layers of vocals that are separate from the lyrics; nearly wordless (but decodable) chants that like a keyboard refrain assist in completing Dear’s beat patterns.

Of course, what makes the Black Edition so special is the inclusion of several bonus tracks, previously released on seven-inch singles but compiled here for the first time. Four Tet re-imagines ‘Deserter’ with some pre-school piano arpeggios and a sparkling loop of electronics that give the single a climax it never had, while Hot Chip reinvents ‘Don and Sherri’ from top to bottom, replacing Dear’s vocals with Alexis Taylor’s and using a ton of synths to emphasize Dear’s romantic deliberation. Bonus tracks sewn onto the end of an album can often damage the core material but here it works, largely because Asa Breed undergoes a dramatic shift in its third act, introducing guitar-rock and some Johnny Cash-flavoured lyricism. This tail-end is the only section of the album that is truly hit and miss, but the newly added remixes and bonus song help to reign the album back to form after such a sudden change of focus.

Since Matthew Dear is off on tour with both Four Tet and Hot Chip right now, this Black Edition makes a lot of sense in the land of cash-in reissues. On the other hand, like a movie that returns to theatres a second time in a last-chance bid for Oscar consideration, Asa Breed is back for those, like myself, who may have missed its quirks the first time out. Certainly worth a second listen.

No comments: