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Show Review: Washed Out + HAERTS [Metro; Chicago; 9/13/13]


There was a chill in the air all throughout Chicago this past Friday night. It was odd only because not a day or two earlier, temperatures were in the mid-to-upper 90s. You could say that fall showed up from out of nowhere. Or maybe it had something to do with the “eerie” Friday the 13th, where bad things happen because of a random day on a calendar. But if you’re looking for a more honest, completely non-scientific explanation for the seasonably cool weather, it’s because Washed Out (aka Ernest Greene) came to town. Greene was one of the original artists to get wrapped up in the “chillwave” genre descriptor when it first came to prominence around 2008. Chillwave grooves might be quite lovely overall, but they project a rather frigid demeanor as well. You’re invited to sit back and relax, but don’t get too comfortable. The chillwave tag might be all but dead these days, and Washed Out may have transitioned to greener pastures via the latest album Paracosm, but that doesn’t mean the city of Chicago has to accept it. We are the Windy City after all, and just like our weather our opinions about things can change dramatically thanks to even the slightest passing breeze. For the sold out crowd at Metro on Friday however, the physical and mental temperature rose big time thanks to cerebral but immensely fun sets from two bands that ignited a dance party of sweaty bodies.


Starting the night off right was New York band HAERTS. They’ve spent the last few months gathering more and more attention for their singles “Wings” and “All the Days,” both of which are bouncy and dynamic pieces of synth pop. You could call them part of a trend in 2013, boasting a similar sound and style to that of Chvrches, another band poised to hit it big despite not having an album out yet. At least Chvrches have got an EP right now. HAERTS are readying their debut EP, titled Hemiplegia, which has been in the works for awhile but will finally be out on September 24th. This tour with Washed Out provides a nice preview of what to expect from this young band in the immediate future. The good news is that the outlook continues to appear bright, and the new songs tend to be as strong as the pair we’ve already been exposed to. They played all four tracks from their EP, including the aforementioned singles, then dove into material that will presumably be on their full length, which is still tentatively due later this year. This is material they’ve been performing and essentially sitting on for at least a year now, if producer Jean Philip Grobler (aka St. Lucia) is telling the truth. One of the best and catchiest of the new tunes is “Heart,” and you can watch the band perform a live rendition of that as part of a recent Yours Truly session. Outside of all that, I’m not sure about the titles of anything else they performed, except to say that there was another fun one and also a slow ballad. On stage, HAERTS sound good and look good too, but those two elements alone don’t win you awards for being a great live band. Their faithful renditions of their recorded output left little room for sonic detours, and the overall stoicism stripped back any genuine emotional impact the songs might otherwise have had. In other words, they might do even better than they currently are if they adopted a looser and more playful attitude on stage. Maybe that’s a quality you attain with time. For now though, HAERTS packed a lot of punch into their opening set, and the crowd got a little bit into it. Hopefully the next time they come through town it will be on a headlining tour in support of their record, and they’ll be better than ever.

The first thing that amused me about Washed Out’s set happened before any notes were even played. It was that the entire stage was decorated in flowers and vines and even patches of fake grass, all in service of fulfilling Ernest Greene’s grand, nature-laden vision. After an album and an EP of intimate but emotionally cold music, the new Washed Out record Paracosm seeks to change things by adding warmth and more organic elements overall. It very much sounds like a summer album to help connect you with the world around you, and all the album art and music videos push this theme even further with flowers, plants and jungle animals. That’s why the look of the Metro stage was so appropriate and equally fascinating. But as far as organic elements go, the biggest positive the new record has to offer is a lot of live instrumentation. In the past, Greene has used samples played off a laptop both in recorded versions of songs as well as in concert. When I last saw the band in fall of 2012, there were more people playing live instruments than I expected, but a laptop was still used from time to time. Now in fall of 2013, all of that computer technology has been eliminated. A handful of people joined Greene on stage to help bring everything to life, and the results were positively lovely.

Starting with Paracosm‘s opening track(s) “Entrance/It All Feels Right,” the crowd got into it right away and bounced along with its upbeat rhythm. Greene strummed an acoustic guitar and sang in tandem with one of his bandmates to create a dual, echo-laden vocal. That vocal style would be adopted for much of the set, and it begs the question of whether or not this choice had anything to do with a lack of confidence/vocal weakness or is intended to be an aesthetic that’s there solely to provoke certain vibes. Whatever’s behind it, everything sounded (and felt) right/well constructed. There was a surprise early on in the set when the band played “Belong,” off the 2009 High Times EP which is the first and probably least recognized Washed Out recording. The live version on Friday night was a bit different from the studio version, which is understandable given how much the show and on stage personnel has evolved since then. The same went for “New Theory” and “Get Up” from the Life of Leisure EP, though there was a certain faithfulness to the recorded original, just recreated by people instead of a computer. Overall the dozen songs performed were pretty evenly split between the varying Washed Out albums and EPs, and actually it could be said the new album was slightly underrepresented by only squeezing three (technically four if you count the 90 second instrumental “Entrance”) of its songs in. Of course they were the poppiest and most enjoyable tracks on the record, and that was perhaps the underlying strategy when performing live – to never let the energy drop. The crowd was dancing and having a great time, so why slide one of the slower and less engaging cuts into the set? The second half in particular was heavy on the hits, with new single “Don’t Give Up” leading into “Feel It All Around” (aka the Portlandia theme song), and “Amor Fati” to close things out in a fun way.

Greene wasn’t a man of many words during the Washed Out set at Metro, but he did introduce the first song of the encore as “one for the old school Washed Out fans in the house.” The band then launched into “Despicable Dogs,” which is actually a cover/remix of a Small Black song that was put together for a split EP back in 2009. Of all the unexpected surprises during the set, that one probably qualified as the biggest. Technically speaking, the band took that song and made it their own, but it wasn’t that far removed from the chillwave original anyways. The novelty was the main selling point. Reflecting on the show afterwards, there were a lot of those unique touches that popped up throughout the 65 minute set, all the way down to the decor. Chillwave may be a subgenre of music on its last legs, but not only did Greene prove himself to be at the top of that pile, he managed to prove there’s still plenty of life left in that particular sound. His continued evolution remains our gain.

Washed Out – Amor Fati

Paracosm full album stream:

Buy Paracosm from Sub Pop

Set List
Entrance/It All Feels Right
Belong
New Theory
Get Up
Soft
You and I
All I Know
Don’t Give Up
Feel It All Around
Amor Fati
Encore
Despicable Dogs
Eyes Be Closed

Album Review: Washed Out – Paracosm [Sub Pop]



Considering the increasingly short life cycles of trends in music these days, it’s gotten almost difficult to remember that there was once a subgenre of music known to many as chillwave. It’s been nearly five years since that word introduced us to artists like Neon Indian, Toro y Moi and Washed Out. Two years after it started, the sound got tired, produced diminishing returns, and artists were forced to adapt/innovate or die. For Ernest Greene of Washed Out, he spent his 2011 debut album Within and Without both perfecting and updating the sound of his earlier EPs. While it wasn’t a record that lent itself to any particular distinction among its nine songs, what it lacked in establishing singles it more than made up for in cohesiveness of sound and structure. It’s exactly the sort of evolution that was needed at the time, and the increased clarity on the production and vocals spoke to a much greater clarity of overall vision for the project as well.

Now in 2013 with that sound even further removed from many radars, Greene makes yet another stylistic leap on Paracosm in a bid to keep things interesting. You’re certainly not going to mistake his work for any other artist, and these aren’t earth-shattering changes by any means, but subtle shifts in tone and instrumentation do show us a new side of Washed Out. The new album sounds so warm and tropical it’s practically the opposite of the icier textures chillwave became known for, and it’s so lush and crisp that affixing the name Washed Out to it feels like you’re mislabeling it. Of course in case you need to be hit over the head with this idea, one look at the floral arrangement on the album cover or watching videos for “It All Feels Right” and “Don’t Give Up” will do everything but physically take you out into nature and prove it’s a great pairing with this music. Hell, when it’s not little snippets of indiscernable conversations from a crowd of people that’s plays at the beginnings and ends of most tracks, you get birds chirping and the basic sounds you hear when you hit the “jungle” setting on the white noise machine next to your bed. Obvious though it might be, the visual (and in some respects sonic) representations associated with this album are intended to enhance what’s already there, which it succeeds at doing in spades. If you think you’ve heard Paracosm because you played it through headphones while sitting at your desk or on your couch one afternoon, the experience changes dramatically if you’re laying on the grass in a park on a sunny day or wandering through a local forest preserve.

Beyond all the physical representations injecting additional mood and meaning into the music, one of the key influencers on this record is the use of more than 50 total instruments rather than sampling. The early recordings were extremely sample-dominant, and while Within and Without started to incorporate a wider variety of organic elements (particularly as part of the live show), this is really the first time guitars and live drums have been used on a Washed Out album. There’s also a host of other, stranger instruments that were used on various songs that might not be so easy to pick out unless you’re really listening closely. Some of those instruments and sonic influences have been chronicled as part of a short documentary by The Creators Project (Part I, Part II), which is insightful and worth your time to watch if you like geeking out about that sort of stuff.

Focusing on the actual songs of Paracosm, as with most albums this one is front-loaded. Outside of the 80 second instrumental intro “Entrance,” the first four actual songs on the record could each serve as potential singles. It’s fitting that “It All Feels Right” really kicks things off, as the track is a spiritual (but not really sonic) cousin to the most popular Washed Out song to date, “Feel It All Around,” which you may recognize as the theme to Portlandia. Both are relaxed but bouncy in their tempo, and lyrically invite you to “feel” positive about life. One of the things that’s more apparent on the new album are Greene’s lyrics, which are never without a touch of reverb but are still clearer than any previous records. If you pay close enough attention to what’s being said, there is some realization that maybe these words would be better if we couldn’t hear them so well. Lines like, “Weekend’s almost here now / It’s getting warmer outside / It all feels right,” might as well appear on the next Black Eyed Peas single because they’re so pedestrian. This has been Greene’s biggest problem since day one, and unlike the forward progress in composition and live instrumentation, he doesn’t seem to be making any effort to improve his writing skills. We understand the theme, along with the overall vibe of a song, is going to place emphasis on laid back, fun in the sun with friends. It’s a great thing to be known for, but it starts to come across as really repetitive the closer you look.

What saves “It All Feels Right” and many of the other poorly worded songs on Paracosm are the arrangements. Official single “Don’t Give Up” does a particularly spectacular job with this, resulting in such a complex melody you’ll keep discovering new layers buried within it several listens later. That chorus is an incredible earworm too. While “Weightless” may not be the most engaging track from the first half of the album, the mixture of synths creates an overall sound that skirts the line between M83 and Cocteau Twins. If it’s commercially viable you’re looking for, “All I Know” might just be the poppiest Washed Out song ever, and it doesn’t feel like anything was sacrificed or lost to get to that point. It’s impressive in its own way, and gives us a glimpse into a potential future for this project where commercial accessibility leads to a broad fan base and hordes of commercial opportunities (see again, M83). “Great Escape” does a fantastic job of tapping into the more soulful side of Greene’s vision, even if that means conjuring up memories of Marvin Gaye classics in the process. Sure it might draw some unfavorable comparisons, but at the same time it adds layers to what we’ve already heard while not straying very far from the overall relaxed and tropical vibe.

As Paracosm starts to wrap up around the lengthy title track, the tempo slows and the synths pretty much take things into cruise control. It doesn’t necessarily get boring, but it can feel a bit whitewashed (word use intentional) and eerily reminiscent of some moments on Within and Without. You could argue that these final songs help to balance out the record, set against the pop-oriented first half. It all flows well thematically, but just because you have that doesn’t automatically make it good. It just makes it more bearable. The positive outlook is that this is the overall best and most advanced Washed Out record to date. It’s issues involving poorly written lyrics, Greene’s limited/always obscured vocal range, and pacing issues towards the end all ultimately pale in comparison to the goal of this music, which is to provide a soundtrack to your relaxing day of fun in the sun. That’s one thing it definitely succeeds at, and what kind of people would we be if we yelled at him for it?

Stream the entire album on Soundcloud for a limited time!

Buy Paracosm from Amazon

Album Review: Washed Out – Within and Without [Sub Pop/Weird World]


Do you recall when people were trying to suggest that the chillwave/glo-fi sound was the future of music? The thought was that this wasn’t just another hyped subgenre but instead something that would become an evolutionary sea change. Personally, I chalked it up to more blowhards talking out of their asses, and assumed the chatter would die down like it always does, when the “next big sound” arrives. That hasn’t necessarily hit just yet, but the electronic sound with the lo-fi production is dying a slow death. Some artists, such as Memory Tapes, appear either slow or entirely unreactive to this evolution, using their most recent full lengths or EPs to hold steadfast in the same sounds they first arrived on scene with. Others, such as Toro Y Moi, have played it much smarter by upgrading to a far more clean-cut and “normal” approach. It’s a survival tactic, but it’s also a great way of showing that underneath the poorly produced exterior lies an album’s worth of highly catchy and easy to love synth-pop songs. This is where Washed Out comes in. The project under which Ernest Greene operates, Washed Out’s sound has been very much a direct indicator of what the name suggests. As such, you might expect Greene to stick with that same path for the new record “Within and Without”. The good news is that music is about so much more than just a name.

Freshly signed to Sub Pop Records thanks to two strong EPs worth of chillwave, Washed Out was given access to a professional studio and other such monetary advantages to help create “Within and Without”. The results are as you might expect – glossy and vibrant, with the synths riding up front and the vocals not much farther behind. It’s dance music, but not nearly in the traditional sense of the word. Subtlety is the name of the game, and the melodies will often slyly sneak up on you and snatch your attention when you least expect them to. There are no immediate hooks or blatant singles like “Feel It All Around” was on the “Life of Leisure” EP. Instead, a track like “Soft” may pass you by on the first go-around as being nice to listen to, but ultimately unmemorable. Then you’ll give it two more close listens, perhaps once with headphones, and suddenly that melody just won’t leave you alone. That’s just one example out of several across the album that reward multiple listens, drawing you in the more attention you devote to it. The relaxed pace is a big part of what makes “Within and Without” work as well, and there’s a certain truth contained within the album cover that features two people lying naked together in the heat of passion. Making love to things like the title track or “You and I” is perfectly sensible and nearly encouraged. But even if you don’t have somebody to get it on with while listening to this album, the sheer ambiance and warmth of it is great to put on at a party or in the background while you’re working or even after a long day where you need to relax. Despite the adjustment in fidelity, this is still CHILLwave after all, and the point is sort of missed if you don’t “chill out” while listening to it.

One of the issues this record runs into is that it might be heard as overly smooth by some, the better production values actually reducing the effectiveness of the material. There is the potential for the entire 40 minute album to slide right past without much notice, but that’s more the result of a poor attention span than it is poor content. From the small bit of cello on “Far Away” through much of the live percussion that unveils itself via a song like “Echoes”, it’s the little things that make “Within and Without” the best set of recordings from Washed Out yet. And even in spite of the better sound quality, that doesn’t make Greene’s vocals a whole lot clearer or more discernable. Between some attached reverb and the placement of the synths and other elements higher in the mix, you’ll likely still be left wanting if the hope was to comb over each and every word and the potential meanings behind them. Greene isn’t a bad singer by any means, but it’s clear that he’d like the focus to be squarely on melody. Besides, you can pretty much already discern from themes and song titles that these songs are about love and longing and summertime and the general sadness of time passing. Sometimes words don’t do those emotions justice anyways. To me, this record is the sonic equivalent of swimming underwater in a crystal clear pool on a sunny day. If that doesn’t seem like an amazing idea to you, then maybe this album or Washed Out in general just won’t click in the proper way. For everyone else, be warned that there’s only a couple months left of summer during which this album will be at its peak enjoyment level.

Washed Out – Eyes Be Closed
Washed Out – Amor Fati

Buy “Within and Without” from Amazon

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