Doldrums Lesser Evil

[Arbutus; 2013]

Styles: poly pop, industrial pop, synth-pop, acid jungle-jam
Others: Grimes, Eurythmics, Björk, Centipede Hz-era AnCo

Taking a stab at exactly what Doldrums is seems beside the point; it’s not a case of being beyond classification or transcending previous musical trajectories, but there’s certainly a noticeable tension operating as to what exactly Airick Woodhead is trying to achieve with this project. Lesser Evil — arriving just over three years after his grunge-electro cover of Portishead’s “Chase The Tear” — capitalizes on what was intriguing about his early sound and explores the bounds of his androgynous pop-jam.

If one were to take the route of examining this as somewhat-pop music, with a conceptual disposition toward the cerebral and how a “pop” or “non-pop” sound might clash, intermingle, or simply fall apart, there’s immediately a distancing from the electro-pop movement: its self-confessed physicality and its celebratory nature. Much like the experience of newer UK bass artists labeled as either that or “post-dubstep,” neglecting to indulge in the contained energy of rhythmically-concerned music implies an intellectualism that might be unintentional or even insulting.

On opener “Anomaly,” Woodhead gleefully clashes the standard (predictable drum-machine grooves and synth bass lines) and the atypical (a cornucopia of wavering, androgynous vocals; unusual form cycles), and the resulting, surprising cohesion validates what is eventually a fully-formed song. Later in the album, on the title track and on “Holographic Sandcastles” (featuring avid sonic-traverser Sami Nacomi), we experience the same tension/release. The jarring polytonal basis of the latter (at times operating on three-scale bases) seems illogical and deluded, but Woodhead and Nacomi construct a prismatic soundscape, where the sounds intersect in pivoting tonal points. Even if the analytical ear is pleased, the intensity, the purity of principal expression operating on the physical level transcends those limitations and communicates a joyfulness, an active and vocal enshrinement of beat, pulse, and dance.

Taking another route, that of Woodhead masquerading as a sound experimenter who produces not a scalpel but a cleaver and charges at the increasingly singular pop world, one has to deal with a different set of issues and resolutions, and decide, ultimately, if those are satisfying. The listener is presented with a more extreme musical experience on “She Is The Wave” and “Lost In Everyone” — Guy Dallas making his ingratiating (literally) timbres felt on the former, with a rush of scratching synths and Woodhead reaching a lyrical and melodic climax with a near-demented scream. On the latter, the high-range vocals setting the previous standard are hastily discarded for a pitch-shifted electro-dirge that descends upon itself in a depressed stupor at the other end of Woodhead’s usual elevation.

There’s an obvious objective to this juxtaposition. The gloominess inhabits a zone increasingly detached and lethargic, especially with the flash of the album’s commencement in mind, which translates at its peak on closer “Painted Black,” which sees the return of Woodhead’s signature vocal after the contained visceral nightmare on the previous track. Yet it’s not as if the listener is being set up for a visibly engineered emotional response. In essence, the ending asks us to contemplate the nature of what has been witnessed — bluntly put, the path trodden. It’s not intellectualism parading in a pop disguise, nor is it pop sneaking into an experimental party. It’s a singular being, not concerned with what it has to be. Which, to say the least, is liberating.

It’s true that Lesser Evil wanders around an uncompromising and dizzying array of (sometimes harsh, predominantly beautiful) sounds, but if one takes a step back and looks at what Airick Woodhead is doing, that’s the point. There’s a sincerity to his total-poly madness, that doesn’t feel contrived. He maximizes his possible timbral palette and allows a total release from pre-conceived sonic relationships — textures, if you will — yet still communicates a pop sensibility. And while there is an abundance of elements that are “of the norm,” a joyous and haphazard mashing of non-standard pop ingredients drives home the album’s directive: a deranged, wonderful projection of polypop-delirium.

Links: Doldrums - Arbutus

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