Wild, Weird, Wonderful
It is not easy to get into an album by Deerhunter. The Atlanta (Georgia, US) based quartet has been variously described as being purveyors of experimental rock or of post-punk or even noise rock. I prefer what Deerhunter’s frontman Bradford Cox calls their music – ambient punk. Cox is six-foot-four and very thin and has what is known as Marfan’s Syndrome, a genetic disorder of the connective tissue (and which I read somewhere that Joey Ramone also had). The disorder can make limbs and fingers very long and thin. That gives Cox a unique stage presence that is made all the more weird when he wears sun-dresses or vintage gowns and has fake blood on his face. Add his quirky vocals and things can get weirder during Deerhunter’s rather intense live gigs.
I use ‘weirder’ in a nice sense, really. Deerhunter’s music, to paraphrase how Cox describes it, has a strange quality about it. It is punk, but punk that has a soothing ambience about it. “Punk” and “soothing” aren’t really two words that go together but Cox’s vocals are delicate and at the same time have the rough edginess of punk. And his lyrics are easy to relate to. You’re unlikely to have a Deerhunter song being played on your local Indian radio station’s rock music programme. Nor are you likely to be able to buy any of their five albums at your local music store in Delhi or Mumbai or anywhere in India. It’s a pity. Because, if you’re bored by the predictable fare that keeps assaulting you at bars, nightclubs and on the radio, it’s bands like Deerhunter, which push the envelope of musical creativity to produce albums that are real gems, that you can turn to.
I have three of Deerhunter’s albums: Crytograms (2007), Microcastle (2008) and this year’s Halcyon Digest (2010). I’d suggest listening to them backwards, that is, start with Halcyon Digest for its sparser sound and easiest to access lyrics and then go on to Microcastle and Cryptograms. Here’s a sample of lyrics from Helicopter (Halcyon Digest): ‘Take my hand and pray with me/ My final days in company/ The devil now has/ come for me/ And helicopters circling the scene/ And I pray for us/ Would you pray for us/ Nobody loves you the best/ We know he loves you the best/ Tired of my pain I’m tired of my pain, oh/ No one cares for me/ I keep no company/ I have minimal needs/ And now they are through with me.’ Yeah, I know it’s a bit depressing but who says you have to be exuberant all the time? If you like Deerhunter, I’m sure you’ll check out Atlas Sound, which is Cox’s moniker for his solo work. He has a few solo albums out but I’ve only just begun listening to Logos, the first.
I really don’t know why The War on Drugs, a band from Philadelphia, calls itself that. But then I guess you shouldn’t read too much into band names, anyway. The band, which has at its core two musicians – Adam Granduciel and Kurt Vile – with other musicians dropping in and out, has interesting influences. You can hear Bob Dylanesque ballads, My Bloody Valentine’s kind of shimmering dreaminess and, this is probably not surprising for a Philly band, Bruce Springsteen. All of this is rolled together in a blend that, incredibly, still sounds original. I got hold of their first full-length, Wagonwheel Blues (2008) and this year’s EP, Future Weather, and have not been disappointed.
The War on Drugs have a way of interpreting their very strong, yet diverse influences that doesn’t make them sound derivative. On the other hand, their work sounds like it has a lot of promise. They take their very obvious and classic sources (Dylan, Springsteen, etc.) and interpret them in, well, The War on Drugs’ way. The result, on the two albums I’ve heard, is very satisfying.
Even as I was beginning to get into The War on Drugs, I discovered that one half of the core in the band and the lead guitarist was a quiet solo musician. Kurt Vile began recording his own projects at home for years but made a ripple in 2008 with his debut, Constant Hitmaker (2008). I heard it and realised that I’d discovered a gem. Vile’s lo-fi music and whispery, low-key vocals grow on you and his solo album is perfect for listening to alone. That is, of course, if you’re into that kind of thing.