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20 May 2012

Deerhunter - 'Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.' (Kranky)

I fell in love with Microcastle while falling asleep to it every night on earphones, during a tumultuous period of my own life. Bradford Cox's subtle songs really spoke to me then - I began to imagine deep rivers of melancholy underneath what would otherwise be simple, even gothy lyrics. This is a 'mellow' album, akin to low-key classics like Mekons Journey to the End of the Night or Big Star's third album. That's not to say Deerhunter doesn't function as the exploratory rock band they established themselves as in previous releases - especially on side 2 - but that there's less of a bass-led groove here, and this is a record more concerned with melody, lyrics and texture than jamming out. Maybe this explains my love for Microcastle - even though it's a 'breakout' album, it's somewhat of a departure. The record opens with 'Cover Me (Slowly)', a slow instrumental intro, starting the theme that's expanded in 'Agoraphobia'. This immediately marks a distinct change from Cryptograms-era Deerhunter - it's much more dry, more precise, and almost overly mild. Actually, it sounds just like the song 'AT&T' by Pavement, and this might also be why I fell in love with it. Microcastle veers between songs of desolation and strange, missing nostalgia, always rooted in pain and loss. 'Little Kids' is a built around an addictive melody, with a guitar riff that could be sing-song cute in another context. It's a song that paints a dark portrait of adolescence, which slowly ascends into a thick sheet of soundhaze without ever letting go of it's sing-along chorus. Most of the delivery on Microcastle is slow and restrained; the image of death lingers over everything, but you have to really work for it. The title cut is a beautiful minimalist sketch built around Cox's voice and an electric guitar which, when it finally explodes into the full-band stomp, has quite a payload. 'Calvary Scars' continues this wobbly, sparse delivery, letting the guitar overtones quilt up behind the voice; 'Green Jacket' fades to almost nothingness. The flipside starts with the melting shimmery 'Activa' before breaking into 'Nothing Ever Happened', the clear 'single' from the record. This twisting tune is driven by a strong bassline and it feels like a holdover from Cryptograms - not the waxed-paper vision of the rest of the album, but an appropriate inclusion anyway. The tune ends with a dizzying, descending guitar line that has traces of the Feelies around the edges. The jangle creeps in throughout the album, sometimes just as colour and sometimes as structure. 'Never Stops' and 'Saved by Old Times' both employ a confident 4/4 drive around their moaning, yearning tales of seasonal affective disorder and living in the past. A great album,yeah, but it's only half the package; like Cryptograms, Kranky is making sure I get my money's worth of Deerhunter for this purchase. Weird Era Cont. was thrown into this as a second LP, intended to be some sort of bonus album to combat leaked mp3s, or something like that. It's a bit of a Dead Letter Office, consisting (I guess) of Microcastle outtakes, but it's still pretty solid. The most successful tracks are fast rockers, such as  'Focus Group' and 'Operation', yet they're still holding a more stripped-down feel than anything on the regular album, which suggests that these tracks are unfinished. But a less polished Deerhunter is still nice; the sketches are lovely. 'Cicadas' attains a nearly free-jazz clatter; 'Ghost Outfit' is little more than a synth experiment, but interludes are lovely; see side 2's 'Slow Swords' for a real mood piece. These instrumental jams recall the ambient/song dichotomy of Cryptograms, though 'Weird Era' sounds more like No Neck Blues Band and 'Moon Witch Cartridge' is kinda goofy. 'Vox Celeste' brings out the more shoegazer qualities of their work, with vocals melting into a sea of reverb (but the vibe is still good, good). It's brother, 'Vox Humana' starts with big Phil Spector drums, which slowly recede into the distance as the mid-range gloom takes charge, subduing Cox's semi-spoken vocals under the warm reverb. The whole thing ends with a bubbly, melting version of 'Calvary Scars', thus tying the two LPs together into a conceptual whole.

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