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Tag: glo-fi

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!

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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

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Album Review: Toro Y Moi – Underneath the Pine [Carpark]

When we last left Toro Y Moi, aka Chaz Bundick, he was riding high on his 2010 debut record “Causers of This”. It was one of a multitude of entries last year underneath the much-hearalded banner of glo-fi/chillwave. In case you’ve been living underneath a rock for the last year or two, what has earned glo-fi/chillwave a strong reputation has been the smart way in which artists have taken electronica-based sounds and repurposed them with a more lo-fi edge. Crappy, home-recorded tracks aren’t exactly the genre’s defining qualities, but they’re certainly one of the ways you can recognize chillwave when you hear it. You need to have a better head on your shoulders than a lot of more mainstream, studio-recorded electronica artists as well. Toro Y Moi certainly falls into that category, as do notables such as Twin Shadow, Neon Indian, Washed Out, Small Black and Memory Tapes among others. While many of them have put out debut records in the last year or two, Toro Y Moi is first out of the gate with a sophmore album, and at a time when chillwave is naturally burning out of its hype cycle. Chaz Bundick seems to know this, which is probably why his new album “Underneath the Pine” makes some necessary sonic leaps forward to keep a fickle collection of music fans interested and in his corner.

Like the “demise” (i.e. decrease in popularity) of lo-fi a couple years back, the smartest and easiest route off the glo-fi/chillwave path is to clean it up and add more hooks. “Underneath the Pine” does pretty much exactly that, with Bundick putting something of an actual studio budget to use and throwing a bit of polish on what are now more energetic, pop-driven arrangements. That was pretty well evident from the first two tracks released in advance of the album, “New Beat” and “Still Sound”. Both are excellent dance floor singles on their own, exploring a number of old school influences that includes soul and funk to create a more fractured and innovative take on what might otherwise be considered traditional. Both these songs are also notably more concise and fun than much of what was on the “Causers of This” debut. The whole “chill” part of chillwave was to place a bit of emphasis on more laid back and relaxed song structures. Electronica for the calmer set, something that wasn’t concerned with hitting those big beats that send the clubs into overdrive. “Underneath the Pine” still isn’t that modern, club-banging huge electronica album, but is rather an intricate, smartly composed set of songs that just so happen to at the very least get your toe tapping.

As the singular entity behind Toro Y Moi, Bundick really shows off how creative and instrumentally dense he can be with the strong variety of instruments across each track. Given how he implements things like keyboards and looped vocal harmonies, there are sections that do seem sharply inspired by a Stereolab or Broadcast or even Teenage Fanclub given the right circumstances. It’s slightly off from widesceen appeal, but unique and engaging enough to satisfy those with more open minds and penchants for a number of classic tropes. Xylophones and harpsichords (both likely “artificially created”) permeate the main melody of “Go With You” to throw it just a touch off-kilter and keep you guessing as to where it will go next. The way the acoustic guitar blends almost effortlessly with the woozy synths in “Before I’m Done” is simply wonderful, before the trippy psychedelic breakdown comes in the last minute. The collision of traditional piano and synth on “How I Know” gives the upbeat cut more depth than what might otherwise be recognized a 60s-tinged dance number. Bongos are just a small part of what makes “Light Black” one of the record’s most exciting and odd adventures,circumventing a standard song structure for something more playful and “out there”. And the heavy-handed, messed up piano combining with the psych-pop tropes on “Good Hold” makes for an effective Brian Eno-esque underwater adventure that sails seamlessly into closer “”Elise”.

While there was at least one bonified indie hit on the first Toro Y Moi album “Causers of This” courtesy of the track “Blessa”, what that entire record primarily lacked was a real reason to stick with Chaz Bundick’s project. He had the zeitgeist of being a chillwave artist but less actual buzz than his peers. To be fair, there was an overflow of the genre and not everyone can get the coverage they want or deserve. So Bundick was smart to not only keep working over the last year by consistently contributing remixes of other artists’ work, but also handling a very club-riddled “history of electronica” sort of side project known as Les Sins. Then to come running out of the gate this year with “Underneath the Pine” provides more justification as to why he not only needs more of our attention, courtesy of some stronger-than-ever songs that move beyond the overhyped subgenre that plucked him from obscurity and into something that’s more instrumentally conscious and pop-ready. In other words, Toro Y Moi has moved up the ladder and you need to be paying close attention. Here’s a really fun and moderately experimental electronica record that has more in common with most bands today than the actual dance music scene. It’s about time somebody did this the right way, and the cliffhanger we’re all left with is how Bundick is going to change it up on us again next time.

Toro Y Moi – Still Sound

Toro Y Moi – New Beat

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