Tuesday, August 28, 2012

review: wild nothing- 'nocturne'

The wait is over—the new Wild Nothing record seemed to drop down from heaven a mere month or two ago. The last quarter of 2012 is packed with greatly anticipated releases and this one is an appropriate place to begin the sorting. I’ve spent a week listening to the stream of the record that was posted on Captured Tracks’ soundcloud page (thanks for that, by the way—talk about a refreshing trend) and the beautifully packaged vinyl showed up on my doorstep this afternoon. It has six different front cover options that double as inner sleeves/lyric sheets. The cover art is a good place to start as the record is bursting with colour in ways that the greyness of 2010’s ‘Gemini’ and its companion EP ‘Golden Haze’ only hinted at. A lot of the gauzy haze has been shaken off—by side two it’s all but a memory before the smoke curls in again for the last two tracks.

The preceding singles pointed the way—‘Nowhere’ basically laid out the template, ‘Wait’ set the bar songwriting-wise and then the swooning and wistful, clear-eyed beauty of ‘Shadow’ appeared a month ago. Its B-side ‘Feel You Now’ sported some deliberately 80s-sounding production flourishes. In a nutshell this album is pretty much an expanded version of those two singles with a little bit of ‘Your Rabbit Feet’ from ‘Golden Haze’ thrown in there for good measure. What I’ve always loved the most about songwriter Jack Tatum’s affection for 80s sounds is that it isn’t self-conscious or at all ironic. What’s more he really knows his stuff. I’ve been going through a bit of an 80s vinyl renaissance lately—the production touchstones of that era are often thought of as kitschy or dated, but if you throw on a slab of vinyl that was recorded and pressed in the 80s something special happens—it becomes clear that these producers and mastering engineers REALLY knew what they were doing. With the vinyl resurgence having been in full swing for years now those of us who never stopped buying vinyl have had to endure some pretty sloppily put together slabs of vinyl and have, most likely, paid through the nose for them. It’s made me revisit a lot of my 80s vinyl and what I hear when I put on, say, ‘Hounds of Love’ by Kate Bush or ‘Faith’ by the Cure is how well-suited what we think of as 80s style production is to vinyl as a format. The cuts from most 80s vinyl are far more likely to be deeper, clearer, longer, louder and more expansive than those that were produced in, say, the last ten years. These people knew what they were doing. Due to the fact that most of us first heard the music from this era on the first wave of compact discs our view of the virtues of production from this era are skewed by the flaws of a new format that no one understood (kind of like how people are having to remember how to properly record for, master and press vinyl).

I can’t help but think of all of this when I listen to this record because I can’t help but think that Tatum is attempting to safeguard these sounds and put them in a modern context because for many these sounds never got a fair shake. The care that he puts into utilizing the sounds that he uses is something I find very unique and admirable. Having said that what I loved the most about ‘Gemini’ was how it took 80s-styled production, married it to the morose jangle of the Smiths and the La’s and showered it in those beautiful layers of droning shoegaze-y dreaminess. Talk about dream pop. Now this combination is present through much of side one, but begins to be stripped off around the time that ‘Through the Grass’ fades out. While I miss this element of Tatum’s sound I do find it admirable that he is cutting it down in order to let his songs breathe and come alive in a fresh way that we haven’t heard from him yet. This also seems to be the result of the fact that this record was made with his live touring band . Sparseness and space is placed in higher priority than layers of gauze, as well. ‘The Blue Dress’ has a nice Cure-like arrangement that has the verses carried only by the rhythm section and Tatum’s voice. ‘Through the Grass’ and ‘Only Heather’ form a nice couplet where the dreaminess of the record reaches its apex and the wistfulness of ‘Shadow’ and closing track ‘Rheya’ work as nice bookends. Tatum has said in interviews that the different phases of the moon pictured on the cover are supposed to be reflected in the mood of the music, which makes sense since the music on 'Nocturne' is wider in scope than 'Gemini.'

At this point I can’t say that ‘Nocturne’ is better than ‘Gemini.’ The two are so different I find it difficult to really compare them even though they share similarities. Also, ‘Gemini’ took me a long time to embrace as a record—it’s one of those albums that slips into your life slowly over time. First I only liked one track, then two until eventually, depending on my mood when I’d listen to it, my favourites would be different with each listen. I suspect ‘Nocturne’ is going to grow on me in a similar way. What’s most important is that Tatum has stayed true to the heart of everything, which is his strength as a songwriter. I also appreciate that he didn’t just give us ‘Gemini Part Two’ which he obviously could’ve done with considerable ease.

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