Faced with the loss of their bassist following last year’s neo-dub-punk-dance stunner Steal Your Face, the two remaining members of Mi Ami responded by ditching their stringed instruments altogether, switching over to ancient drum machines, a sampler that runs on floppy disks, and the simplest keyboard presets imaginable. ALthough that setup might sound like the recipe for the latest chillwave release, the results of this change-up don’t bring to mind hazy memories of weed and beaches so much as they do Miami Sound Machine. Yeah, that Miami Sound Machine, the one played incessantly on the sort of radio stations that claim to play “everything.” The production may be lo-fi, but these dirt-cheap synths are left standing in all their stark, canned glory rather than buried in waves of evocative mist. In a word, Dophins sounds like shit.
I can’t even qualify that with something along the lines of “shit never sounded so good.” In terms of production, Dolphins really does sound like shit, borderline difficult to listen to the first go-round, especially in light of the brilliant amalgamations of diverse sounds found on their previous releases. But, somehow, once the initial shock wears off, the record beings to shine, neither in spite nor because of its bargain-basement sound. The crucial structural elements of their previous releases remain: dubby baselines anchoring pinging explorations of density and negative space, relentless punk energy oozing into stretched-out forms, shifting elements interlocking in disorienting but purposeful ways. Oh, and there’s still vocalist Daniel McCormick’s unmistakable squawk, which hasn’t lost an ounce of its strangely expressive forcefulness and unpredictability. Which isn’t to imply that this change in instrumentation doesn’t really change anything — it certainly does. The drum patterns are locked relentlessly into the limited 4/4-derived slots allowed by the 707 sampler, and the drop to two musicians significantly alters the options available for the sort of constant communication featured on previous releases.
So what do we have here, then? We’ve got Mi Ami’s core coursing through a setup that actively confounds some of their best qualities, emerging in some mangled, altered, still-alive-and-kicking form. For evidence of just how literal of a description this is, check closing track “Echo,” an almost-faithful interpretation of Watersports’ “Echononecho,” bringing the original’s bouncing, frenetic quiver into icy relief, vocals bouncing uneasily around the hollowed-out cavern of the original. In its way, the whole stylistic changeup is a boldly punk move, and it works. Once you’ve acclimated, these chintzy sounds take on a chilly beauty due to an insistence on treating it all with the same free-minded seriousness they did on previous outings. And the change of textures brings some new twists to McCormick’s signature vocal style; where his sudden switches between various registers and deliveries slotted in fairly neatly within the maelstrom of sound, their emphatically human quality stands in stark contrast to the electronic pace-keeping surrounding him on Dolphins, which helps to make this the first Mi Ami album that’s more desperately sad than desperately angry. But it’s still angry, of course. And danceable, very danceable — the only logical part of this switch was the move to dance music’s now-native territory, Mi Ami now fully inhabiting that world, even if it’s still in their deliberately fracturing manner.
Steal Your Face and Watersports made a space for punk energy within a global — but never colonial — musical context, and Dolphins takes this drive into a minimalist direction, fusing those ideas with a brutal aesthetic Spartanism. It’s the sound of restless, searching energy channeled into a bare-bones context, surging against its boundaries by sheer compositional rigor. It sounds like shit, but they’ve found a vital reason for shit to get up and try its hardest to stay alive.