Dinowalrus %

[Kanine; 2010]

Styles: Nor Wave, shoegaze, ambient-post-punk
Others: Spacemen 3, early Deerhunter, White Denim, Titus Andronicus

I’m pretty sure I’m a symptom of the zeitgeist when I confess that, no matter how much music fills my days, I can stake very little claim to being there, man. I think I spot my target audience already, wheeling rickety carts through a Salvo of hand-me-down moments. But I’m not blowing raspberries; it’s miraculous that we still somehow have access to the idea of a ‘scene’ when the word’s central concept, place, is no longer an issue. The most recent self-fulfilling prophecy, ‘glo-fi’ (insert whatever parenthetical synonym here) actually eschews consistent sonic laws of place — something I’m concerned a lot of listeners have come to expect in their music. Escapist and disorienting in turns, it’s nothing like listening to, say, a punk rock record, which drags you straight into its history. So, yeah, pile ‘scene’ with the other digital simulacra: desktop, chat, virus, etc. You’d be forgiven, since it’s what so many musicians want, for letting it slip your mind that all music is incepted at an exact time and place. The scene is still there, somewhere, and it’s as caustic as ever.

Dinowalrus don’t want you to forget that, which is both their charm (though the music rarely sounds ‘charming’) and what makes them available for easy criticism. Their debut. %, is such a mess of contradictions that I want to call it ‘Nor Wave.’ It’s fractured, but that term doesn’t do justice to some of the gorgeous swathes in its back half, the surprises that don’t explode in your face. It’s psychedelic, but often with a perplexing disregard for sound; the electronics aren’t furnished or highfalutin, and even the gauziest synths come off as impulsive, biological, like they just came out of the musicians. Somewhere in there, it occurred to me that the album captures, in seamy spirit, the sort of mind-blowing underground live show that New York was famous for in the early 80s. We’re not gonna take forceps to that awkward, Morsed-out Hammond in the middle of “Cage Those Pythons” because, holy shit, that organ is perfect. The Spacemen 3 haze of the “Mobius Strip” is welcome, but neither safe nor foreseeable. The music continually collapses and wriggles its way out of a stable identity, creating the kind of linear performance we don’t see much in albums anymore. It doesn’t leave you content; it leaves you floored, hungry.

In fact, the first half of Deerhunter’s Cryptograms is the best analog to %’s trajectory that I can conjure. Given what Bradford Cox has done since 2007, I don’t know if anyone remembers that Cryptograms was marketed as “ambient-post-punk,” and despite its critical reception, the music itself was as confusing, elusive, and impossible as those hyphens. But let’s not kid ourselves: college radio erupted for Deerhunter when they buckled down and became consistent, whereas Dinowalrus absolutely thrive on art-damaged, “how does that ever work?” entropy. Look at the spectacular but hardly metonymic blog favorite “BEAD.” All of the elements of that song — the “Girls & Boys”-styled funk bassline, the don’t-mention-Philip-Glass arpeggios that sound like they were left on, the free-jazz clarinet that locks in as ingeniously as it would for Pere Ubu — they all fuck each other and your mind in equal measure. And those tormenting vocals, so hooky that it’s infuriating they cannot be hummed. I would call Pete Feigenbaum chameleonic if his shapeshifting vocals actually gave a shit about context. Instead, they’re a whole new evocative revelation whenever they come in.

The occasional goofball flourishes, like squelchy oscillators or the multilayered titular grumble at the end of “I Hate Numbers,” are far overshadowed by moments of genuine beauty, intensity, or groove. The breaks between processed guitar in “Nuke Duke ’Em” consist of a variety of machines screaming at us every way they know how, but after a few bars the burden lifts away and is displaced by an incandescent guitar line and wispy Canterbury vocals. It’s such a divine relief that I’d bet structural incoherence is the last thing on anyone’s mind. Dinowalrus have got a lot where that came from: one soaring, three-second surf-guitar break (breaks abound, you see) toward the end of the already-surf-referencing “Cage Those Pythons”; something akin to an anthemic major-key chorus, awash in gated drums, rising periodically out of the middle of the Zero-G “I Hate Numbers.” One doesn’t listen to these songs waiting for these moments; one listens to the album knowing full well that it will consistently wrestle with one’s grip. That’s the contract listeners face, and I’m not surprised some people don’t buy into it, but for those sticking to earth, % is teeming with more rewards and audacious invention than virtually any other debut 2010’s seen so far.

Links: Dinowalrus - Kanine

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