Briefly disregarding the weight that judgment and taste bring to bear, it happens that sometimes, in a self-fulfilling postmodernist twist, follow-up albums just don’t conform to the logical, Hegelian, linear conception of development and progress. To put it bluntly, second albums usually suck. But such is most certainly not the case with Spooky Action At A Distance, Deerhunter guitarist Lockett Pundt’s second effort as Lotus Plaza. The new songs display a newfound sophistication in composition, arrangement, and production, with richly layered, textured guitars, and Pundt having come ever closer to finding his own voice. In fact, the album sounds like such a natural improvement over its predecessor, 2009’s The Floodlight Collective, that the also-fantastic debut release is now nearly rendered amateurish.
Every listener will have their own reference point from which to orient themselves with Spooky Action. According to my own tastes, and from what I’ve heretofore gathered about Pundt’s self-confessed influences, mine is English 1980s dream pop pioneers The Chameleons’ own second album What Does Anything Mean, Basically?. The similarities are striking: the anachronistically affective — beautiful, grand, serene — “Untitled,” which opens Spooky Action, echoes that of What Does Anything Mean’s “Silence, Sea And Sky,” both with all-too-brief, instrumental, ethereal intros establishing their respective album’s mood and purpose. Meanwhile, the first proper ‘song’ for each album reads like a statement on the part of the album as a whole — that is, to differentiate its contents from any previous material. But this is done not through a major break in musical style or genre per se, but on a subtler level, wherein the particularities of sound, texture, and production all effectively inform one another. Like The Chameleons’ “Perfume Garden,” Spooky Action’s “Strangers” really does sound like a shock of bittersweet-tinged clarity when juxtaposed with the rest of Floodlight Collective, those aforementioned layers of guitar, employed fluidly, carrying the irresistibly hummable melody along effortlessly and without obscuring it.
If anything, the changes wrought as evidenced within Pundt’s music have only helped to articulate what now seems like its inherently nostalgic character, one of the self-admitted main themes of the first album. Unlike What Does Anything Mean’s explicit lyrical forays into singer Mark Burgess’ childhood, however, the nostalgia evoked throughout Spooky Action is present as an undercurrent: it’s indirect, albeit still placeable, and without any implicated reliance on tired walls of noise. Much has already been made of “Monoliths,” the melody of which sounds like it could’ve been lifted from any number of decidedly post-shoegaze, mid-90s rock bands, while highlight “Jet Out Of The Tundra” recalls the Radiohead mini-epic from In Rainbows, “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” in its elaborate, labyrinthine, yet simple guitar playing, which casts a wonderfully contemplative mood. No indiscernible jumbles of noise here, closing acoustic track “Black Buzz” has a grounded yet hip attitude to it that recalls Mazzy Star (or Swell or The Jesus and Mary Chain) in the context of 1990s college rock.
What about Deerhunter? While Lotus Plaza is essentially one Locket Pundt pulling all the strings, so to speak, you wouldn’t know it from hearing Spooky Action At A Distance. The album sounds like the work of a full band that deliberated, rehearsed, and deliberated once again in working toward a definitive recording. More importantly, it’s also the sound of an artist who’s surpassed the seemingly inescapable limiting insularity of his own solo project, and to say that this is in itself impressive would be an understatement.