Friday, November 14, 2008

Microcastle - Deerhunter


Kranky Records.

SCQ Rating: 90%

Time is a measurement, no different than tons, hectares or milliliters, which is mapped accordingly to our lifespan. A day to us (at least in the Western world) is nothing, ably occupied indoors watching movies or wasted however one sees fit. A wasted week? Likely the result of some funny story. When we begin talking about months or full years, however, these time-spans take on a more serious nature; the longer the period of time, the greater the gamble to our lifespan. Bradford Cox doesn’t operate this way, namely because on a given weekend, the Deerhunter frontman accomplishes more than your average recording artist could in a month. Need proof? In twenty months, Cox has gone from absolute obscurity to indie-fame, releasing the celebrated Cryptograms, the equally distinguished Fluorescent Grey EP, a sensational solo album under the Atlas Sound moniker, over one hundred additional songs (given away on his blog or built to comprise the upcoming Atlas Sound sophomore), and now Microcastle.

What ultimately crowns Cox’s work ethic as excellent, instead of self-indulgent, is the versatility and commanding reign he manages, marking each release as a profound new step in a remarkably young career. A single spin of Microcastle leaves no doubt that this is a checkpoint, a go-to flag in their discography, that will be foremost discussed long after Deerhunter’s lifespan expires. Although their affection for pop music has seldom been offered room to grow on their previous efforts, Deerhunter have carved such influences – My Bloody Valentine drones, 50s girl-group arrangements, Sonic Youth weirdness – into their songwriting. (Oh, and to those who questioned Cryptograms’ authenticity, behold: what you hear on record is proof that Deerhunter are the proprietors of this sound. Call it shoegaze, ambient-rock, whatever you want, but Microcastle ensures this a singular sound, and their trademark, to be defended or fucked with at their whim.)

At several intervals, I couldn’t help but glance back and question whether Cryptograms really sounded the way I remember it. Those found-sound squalls and drones of dissonance that gave weight to some ferocious indie-rock are minor players now as Microcastle blossoms into a dream-pop haze where found-sound is more percussive (in the segue ‘Calvary Scars’), the drones deeply rooted and complex (‘Neither of Us, Uncertainly’). Although Cryptograms will always be commendable for its devil-may-care use of fury and instrumental assaults, it all seems a bit abrasive once you’ve heard this. Granted, what made that 2007 breakthrough so wonderful was its ability to rock out as often as it spaced out, moving suddenly between prolonged ambient pieces and crunchy shoegaze. Neither of these Deerhunter-dimensions is omitted in Microcastle’s centerpiece, an ambient blackhole that endures several suites – some ominous, some beautiful – before arriving at ‘Nothing Ever Happened’, their epic tour-de-force. That gravitational center and the sequencing at large are among the record’s most charming features; that each track fulfills its ambition through interaction is undeniable.

Which brings us to Microcastle’s ultimate feat: mastering the three-minute pop song. Both ‘Agoraphobia’ and particularly ‘Never Stops’ are sharp pills of pop with pocket-sized grandeur, taken in stride and never forceful, showing how far Deerhunter have come since ‘Strange Lights’, the black sheep of brevity from their sophomore set. ‘Little Kids’ swells like the days of old as Cox layers harmonies over a densely compiled climax, while ‘Saved By Old Times’ breaks new ground with a simple rock riff that catches fire into a sound-collage experiment gone incredibly right.

How did they record this in a week? How did they capture Cox’s marginalized neurosis in arrangements this lush and captivating? Why do I keep thinking of Daydream Nation? There’s one answer for all of the above, and it’s simple: in all my admiration for Cox in his Atlas Sound guise, I forgot how talented and essential Lockett Pundt and the band are. As exciting as Microcastle is (and there’s really no other word for it), a sliver of me feels bittersweet that Deerhunter have certainly moved toward the mainstream, instead of bringing the mainstream to them. Cryptograms was so sensational because it created a stunning divide; among critics and fans, between experimental music and indie-rock, that beckoned attention. While Microcastle will likely surpass that level of awareness in droves, credit is owed to its accessibility; something Cryptograms hadn’t a hope for. That mysticism is harder to find this time around, but in its place is something too spirited and dynamic to rebuff: a bildungsroman of suburban youth, as performed by a wiser group of misfits. Certainly the caliber of record a band achieves once in a lifetime... of course, I'm hoping Cox will defy that expectation as well. One of the year's best.

Physical versions of Microcastle come bundled with Weird Era Cont., a separate disc of new material. Due to the magnitude of the first disc, SCQ has chosen to review Weird Era Cont. at a later date.

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