Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Youth Lagoon - Wondrous Bughouse

 

What I'd do to be the man given the directive to visualize a product. Not so much the PR role, but the guy who says to the World: alright, here's a thing, this is what this thing may look/sound/feel like if it took the form of another medium. I imagine that's what designers are given when they design confectionery packaging to look as bright and colourful or as fulfilling and indulgent - as many a chocolate bar has replicated - without alluding to the high content of sugar, E numbers, flavorings and God knows what else lying beyond the sugar-cast surface. While Trevor Powers in his Youth Lagoon identity, isn't hinting (yet) at going into the confectionery market anytime soon, the cover to his follow-up to 2011's The Year of Hibernation, Wondrous Bughouse, has as much flurry and bizarre out-spelling of colour and shape, than a pack of fruity chews or jelly babies. Perhaps this is deliberate, a reference maybe to Powers' equally-flurried quest for pompous textures amid his dreamy foray of electronic sounds and pop melodies. Perhaps then, Lagoon's follow-up isn't ashamed to admit its blinding spectral of colour and tone, and wants to show it rather than hide it shamefully behind a chorus of effects and production techniques. Perhaps, this in itself, is just a cover for what really lies beyond its own exterior surface.

Well if this were a tube of chews or a bag of boiled sweets, opener Through Mind And Back may be the cast-off humbug or toffee you hadn't expected to find. There's little suggestion of any deliberate cast of bright glistening tones in the track's brief, but slowly-progressing waver of out-of-tune guitar strings and distant instrumentation. And led soon-after by inflated bass and popping hints of percussion and beats, Powers begins his sophomore with a sound that is tantalizingly creepy in its delivery, as much as it is, bizarrely, inviting in its trickled swirl of strings, bass and radio feedback. But Mute is where the real colour springs to life, and with little hesitation, Lagoon brings the listener back to a familiar recluse of blurred guitars, smoky vocals and dreamy keyboard works that act like an immediate turning-on of a light to the album's dankly treacherous opening. As the looping spring of keys begin to take more a centre stage, as opposed perhaps to taking over completely, Powers' voice gains its humanity back amid the vacuous inhalation of guitar feedback nestling in the backdrop. But when the guitars are, though still distorted, retain a sense of clarity and visibility - Lagoon's patterned vibrancy in his riffs and percussion leaving a colourful trail right through until the song's end - it's a hint more than likely at a more progressive venture in what is Trevor Powers' established dreamy, synthesized sound.

But despite all the rainbow-like offerings and decisive focus on said palette, what pulls me in - or rather, raises one/both eye-brows - is when Powers goes for something a lot less structured and stern, as is the case with follower Attic Doctor. Here, I'm inclined to think even more of a sense of kiddish frolicking about a playground, or open space. Not only is the percussion a lot less rudimentary and monotonous, but the sounds of synthesizers are overwhelmingly more dazed and swayed. As if having spun in a circle ten or twenty times, this is probably the sound of someone or something trying to walk in a straight line, and failing. It's the left-to-right/right-to-left imbalance and lack of control that gives the music a charismatic charm about it, and Lagoon himself layers his vocals in these brief mad-dash passages to get them across. And though it isn't as energetically involved or appealing as the music itself, it still adds a swirl of childish surreality to the overall themes surrounding the music. Child-like is probably one of the most likely contexts that springs up on this album, not so much in a sense that the music is naive or amateurish - or even that it lacks a certain level of professionalism or even awareness about itself - but Powers comes off like a guy fittingly willing to let the music wander off, as opposed to holding it closely on a leash. Listening to The Bath, synths darter and waver between forefront visibility and distant eye-squinting obscurity, but he himself never necessarily feels dominantly in control of where it is the sounds are moving. While I find this letting-go approach interesting, I do question if that means subjecting his own vocal offering in the same way, actually adds anything, or merely leaves the song dilly-dallying about as one big playful blur.

Fortunately, when he goes about actually bringing back some sense of order and control, his song-writing can come up trumps. The track Pelican Man demonstrates that dreamy synths can still have their alone time, but at the same time, both Lagoon's vocal arrangement and instrumental arrangement alike - via both its steady, soft percussion and emotively deep twirls of keyboards and synths - conjures a heightened prolonging effect on its listener - suggesting that this sound is, at the very least, attempting to reach some line of story-telling or engagement. And it's that, I feel, is one of the most fundamental and crucial points any album should prove for itself when going about sound (electronic sounds more specifically) in this style. While brushing your foot across the line dividing abrupt clarity and wondrous obscurity is one intriguing motif and reason to experiment, it doesn't excuse any record lacking any real conviction or purpose, from getting stale and boring.  


Dropla is perhaps one of those tracks that shows Youth Lagoon as the bare human that he is, and less as this locked-away creative-minded venture trying to discover something that's perhaps not even there. Again, the drumbeats are simple and are left to their own accord, but Lagoon's vocals give a suggestive self-confidence and sense of enjoyment around the music's sugary flurry of key chords and thinning string plucks. The track Sleep Paralysis I suppose reaches me more than what a fellow dreamy synthesizer melody might hope to, because it comes off - even in its nightly half-asleep daze of synths and guitars - to have a soul about it. Electronics don't necessarily project themselves as merely off-shoots of selected parameters and knobs set at a certain value. The acoustic accompaniments too give the less-clear visuals a reason to feel slightly withdrawn and nervy about where it is they're leading themselves. Especially in the latter half - that begins to incorporate these nightmarishly less-bright swatches of guitars and anxious percussion hits - I can feel more an emotive side to this music, as opposed to an absolute productive and composed one.

Alot of the songs on this album, as you'll quickly learn, are at least five minutes in length, and because of this, rely on Powers' intrigue for progressing his sounds while at the same time layering them so as to build a form of character about them. Raspberry Cane, the album's longest track at nearly seven minutes, though perhaps one of the more structured and less-progressive of the lot, loses one of the appeal that preceded it. The borrowing of spring-blooming instrumentation you'd find most likely in many a dream pop band; the undergrowth of keyboards and low-ground cymbal hits present here, what he manages to obtain is an effective placing of lyrics and means of executing his sound into a stature of lengthened compositions, without sacrifice. The track's more-pop less-dreamy tint does rely heavily on how far these instruments are able (or willing) to reach, but for the most part, the listener will be so soaked into the passage of less-electronic sounds, they won't even know six-and-a-half minutes have passed. For the final track Daisyphobia, Lagoon returns to that conjured less-colourful approach in his use of distortion and distance with synths, but rather than focus entirely on it, he creates a dynamic through the use of high-rising piano keys and his sprawling attention to detail on the background noises filling up the remainder of the space, that it gives the album, while familiarly dizzy, an inducing state that instrumentally paints a beautiful foray of imagery that neither glistens nor wanes, but simply tumbles and turns like some mobile toy.

Forgive me then for bring up such a personally-chosen metaphor, but it's quite intriguing to come away from an album like Wondrous Bughouse and instinctively feel that you're not only watching a child of perhaps single-digit age going about his or her playful days, but too you are of a similar age and experiencing these joys for yourself. Youth Lagoon perhaps wants us to embrace the child in all of us, and his music definitely conjures these bright, colourful, playful memories of toys, games, confectionery and the like. And while I won't say Powers is the best architect when it comes to designing songs that are as much about a given subject matter as they are the feeling of a certain concept - thus, why I would have liked to have seen more focus on the album's hinted awareness of the dream/nightmare yin-yang manner - what he does well in, is projecting such memories and emotions in a way that turns the blurred sway of synths and instrumentation into the very flashback its listeners will undoubtedly find their inner mind playing over. What this album is then, is a multilateral child of yesteryear that enjoys the foray of games and ideas any kid would come up with, but at the same time, knows where it is their imaginative limitless selves, actually do meet their limits. And while reality hardly shows its face when we're off on a child's ideal fantasy, in musical terms, Youth Lagoon shows us that the imagination, and its allure of truth and fact-of-life, can relate in many places back to the real World around us.
~Jordan

8.0

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