Speculator Nice

[Underwater Peoples; 2011]

Styles: no-fi, shitgaze, slacker pop
Others: Dirty Beaches, Parallel Pyres, Wavves

In previous years, the close of summer has always invited thoughts about the uncertain future and speculation about “what I want to achieve” in the next school year. But now, moving into a dormitory for the first time, I’m more inclined to indulge in reminiscence. As the season comes to its usual muggy close, one foot is firmly placed in the next four years, while the other haphazardly lurches around in memories, some sepia-toned, others less rosily wistful. Nice, the new full-length from Speculator, expresses this nonspecific state of mind in a manner I can only describe as being “viscerally loose.” It’s paradoxical, but then again, so is the sentimentality with which one often views the not-that-distant past. Caught somewhere between Nathan Williams’ pseudo-irreverence and Alex Hungtai’s ghostly vestiges, Nick Ray’s work as Speculator is messy, scatterbrained, and extremely compelling. I’ve never been sold on the idea of lo-fi as an “authentic” documentation of the artistic psyche, but here, distortion is utilized to capture a slacker’s detached, ironic nostalgia.

This uncanny understanding of the subtleties behind surface apathy helps elevate Nice in the lo-fi hierarchy, rendering the album’s aesthetic choices more than just a cheap grab at so-called integrity. Many of Ray’s choices resonate far beyond their overt stylistic callbacks. His indiscernible wailing amid the deconstructed pop-punk of “Century Select” conveys both emptiness and vigor, while his articulations on the flanged-to-shit “Jenny Says” are anxious, fragmented utterances. Indeed, Ray’s voice is often buried in the murky mix, deemphasizing his role as “frontman” of the project and instead placing greater focus on the way these songs’ elements mesh. At times, he acts as an artful sonic collagist; his deftness is evident in the hazy, dreamlike “Display Mood,” which feels at once familiar and reticent. The warped drum machines and barely-melodic motifs all contribute to the success of this unique emotional blend, their stark simplicity crafting a bottomless well of recollections.

Nice is most successful, however, when it filters Ray’s love for 80s pop through tape hiss and places the resultant sound through a blender. It sounds of yearning — minus the typical, trite banalities — and it sparkles with good-humored energy. The amniotic pop-rock of “Colleen” and “Blue Rose” operates in this vein, as does the drugged, slow thump running throughout “Boyfried.” Ostensibly, these moments are far from what we associate as being “active,” yet they are ceaselessly moving landscapes; on “Boyfried,” thick guitar delay and Ray’s cavernous vocal sighs blend together into an amorphous, narcotic mixture. There’s little material here to consciously cling to as a listener; rather, this is stuff to be immersed in. That trait has always been a hallmark of the new movement of submerged pop — I hesitate to use the nigh-meaningless moniker of “chillwave” — but it’s been less common in the more clearly defined aesthetic of Wavves, Japandroids, and other noisy, guitar-driven outfits. Nice neatly occupies both of these territories, melding their best characteristics together onto cheap type II cassettes and crafting a unique, surprisingly convincing sound.

There are moments where Nice sounds almost like a live record, so palpable is its spontaneity; certainly, this is one of the more effective uses of lo-fi recording. But Ray has expressed a bit of hesitation to let either his music’s unkempt production or its retro-80s signifiers define Speculator’s overall presentation — “I think the laziness comes in when bands start being lumped together just because they share some (at times) superficial traits, like a colorful aesthetic or a lo-fi sound,” he said in an interview with Tiny Mix Tapes last spring — and this new full-length, stronger than the sample-heavy Lifestyle, is happily difficult to pigeonhole. It’s immediate, slow-burning, and consistently compelling.

Links: Speculator - Underwater Peoples

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