Tuesday, August 12, 2008

New Music: Microcastle

I’ve put off reviewing Deerhunter’s new album, Microcastle, for a while since its leak. Quality has nothing to do with this decision; it’s a great record. Instead, I was a bit troubled by the timing of the leak – it happened at the start of the summer, even before a release date (Oct. 28) was announced. I just didn’t feel good hyping something that may or may not even come out. Well, several weeks ago, the date was posted alongside the album artwork. I just couldn’t wait anymore.

The band’s previous release, Cryptograms, was a surprising high point from last year, as was its companion EP, Fluorescent Grey. Lead singer, Bradford Cox, put out a fantastic solo album (Atlas Sound, Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel) early this year that will pace high on the ladder at the end of the year. Deerhunter is suddenly prolific, an improbable surprise to those who were introduced to the band through their rough 2005 self-titled debut. How they progressed from there to the beautifully polished songwriters they are now is anyone’s guess.

Enough about their backstory… How is Microcastle? Wonderful!

Like Cryptograms, Microcastle starts out with a pretty instrumental piece (“Cover Me, Slowly”) that flows into a nifty lead track. That’s pretty much where the similarities end. Sure they have those echoing sounds, vocal effects, and that propulsive drumming; but Microcastle is happier, catchier, and more listener-friendly. After listening to Cryptograms about a million times, I could probably write a dissertation about its connotations with mental illness, how each track interacts to tell a musical story, how the compositions are near perfect, etc. Sure I could do that, but here’s the catch: it took me about a million listens to be able to get it. Microcastle doesn’t need to grow on you, it’s already there.

Considering how busy Bradford Cox has been lately, it’s not really a surprise that he hands the vocal duties to guitarist Lockett Pundt for a couple songs (including the opener). Cole Alexander (from the Black Lips) also takes vocal duties for a track (Saved by Old Times), leaving Cox’s signature voice to about 3/4ths of the album. That’s okay, really, because guest vocals are a fun idea. The album is supposed to be fun: if Cryptograms was all about depression, Microcastle is all about what happens afterward.

Deerhunter just have fun with this album. “Nothing Ever Happened” explores Krautrock. The lyrics on “Agoraphobia” are so morbid, they’re silly. “Cover Me, Slowly” starts the album with a decidedly epic chord progression. “Saved By Old Times” features the line, “We were captured by Victorian vampires with elaborate designs.” Gone is the creepy weirdness so prevalent of Cryptograms and Fluorescent Grey: the band seems to have shifted their colors.

The new Deerhunter is not only fun, they know how to, well, rock. Several songs are loud and bombastic, and, dare I say it, epic. “Never Stops”, “Neither Of Us, Uncertainly”, and “Twilight At Carbon Lake” each build to grandiose finales, and the album purposefully goes through a little valley (“Calvary Scars”, “Green Jacket”, “Actavia”) in order to build up to a huge conclusion. Like U2’s best albums, Microcastle is both inspired and inspiring.

Sure, it’s not as great as Cryptograms (the best album from the recent shoegaze re-hash), but Microcastle doesn’t want to be. It’s a smart, fun, catchy pop album filled with rewarding hooks and sounds and noises. Its buildups and falldowns are emotionally affecting, and every piece works the way it should. Microcastle is one of the best records of the year.

EDIT: You can buy it on iTunes right now. Please do so... It's worth it!

Nothing Ever Happened - Deerhunter

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