Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Deep Time - Deep Time
Hardly Art, 2012

A fun thought experiment: what would Stereolab sound like if you subtracted the krautrock, the lounge, and the bossa nova? The easy answer, of course, is nothing, really. But to keep this going a little further, what would replace those sounds? Assuming that this un-Stereolab band would play to the same strengths--a certain rigidity healthily coexisting with a kind of bounciness and a singer whose voice and style best suit a flattened sing-song--and without logical pairings for its exotica fetish, it's probably safe to assume that the new influences would hail from the dubbier sides of post-punk.

On their self-titled debut (actually the band's second album, after being forced to change their name from Yellow Fever), the duo Deep Time does a pretty good impression of what the band described by that thought experiment might sound like (and on "Gold Rush" they don't sound a million miles away from actual Stereolab). The bass lines are slightly more reggae than dub--closer to the Police, say, than to PiL (especially on "Clouds," with echoes to these ears of "Roxanne")--but the guitar clangs and crosshatches its way along just fine, eschewing chug for starkness and winding melodies (often following bass and voice) that gesture towards surf, while the touches of organ that creep up throughout suggest an American take on Clinic and Broadcast (perhaps most obviously on "Coleman"). Singer Jennifer Moore doesn't have Laetitia Sadier's Gallic charm, but her phrasing is remarkably similar to the Stereolab frontwoman's (a definite plus in my book), and the way she manages to pull lines apart into clipped syllables and yelps serves as an immediate hook over the tightly wound music.

One other band looms large here, though less because of a similarity in sound and more because of the lessons learned over the course of its career. Spoon has managed to turn simplicity and space into virtues, using negative space to amp up the power of their rock in a minimal take on early rock and roll and rhythm and blues filtered through a post-punk sensibility. Deep Time sound like they've learned many of these tricks already: for as focused as their songs are (there are no wasted seconds on this album), they're also rough and raw, letting space help them fill the room. There are a few moments in which this backfires--even at their most demo-like, Spoon's songs sound immaculate, the guitars pristine in their raggedness, whereas the guitar on "Homebody" sounds plastic and cheap, rather than wiry. Similarly, though the minimalist palette is refreshing, a few other textures, or at least some different deployments of the same textures, would go a long way toward making this record a little more immediate and its songs a little less homogeneous. The messy harmonics on closer "Horse"--almost "Hey Joni"-ish--are so striking precisely because they play on the ear in a way that nothing in the previous twenty seven minutes has.

However, these shortcomings don't detract much from what is an intriguing album. The way opener "Bermuda Triangle" shifts from stark chords to loping verse to lush chorus is a masterful bit of arranging and really sells Moore's vocal whoops. Her way with a melody is even more apparent on "Sgt. Sierra," on which her voice keeps sliding around where it would seem natural to head, saving what might otherwise be too straightforwardly sweet and schoolyard rhyme-ish with an injection of subtle tension that balances out the music's organ-led garage flourishes. And, despite my complaints about the guitar sound above, "Homebody" has one of the album's most emotionally powerful vocals, with the chorus sounding like an alternative-universe version of a Fiona Apple track. "Gilligan," on the other hand, is the most straightforwardly radio-friendly song on here (is that idea even still a thing in 2012?): a little too slick and anonymous compared to the rest of the album, it trades the idiosyncrasies that bring the others songs to life for a catchy, spiky indie song. By far the longest song, "Horses" gives the band some more room to stretch out in and is the better for it, suggesting that there are possibilities for the future in a slight unwinding that keeps focus on the duo's impressive interactivity. 

Post-punk derived bands are never in short supply, and, with Prinzhorn Dance School's very good second album Clay Class already mining similar territory this year, it's tempting to write off Deep Time as a solid album that, if you're inclined to enjoy this style, is worth a listen but otherwise isn't worth making a fuss about. What I find intriguing about this album, though, is its ability to fit into an unoccupied space in an otherwise crowded milieu. The borders of that space are easy to sketch out, somewhere within the rectangle defined by Stereolab and Spoon, Broadcast and Clinic, but knowing them doesn't render Deep Time's sound ineffective, nor does it mean that the duo is incapable of surprise. This is not cookie cutter post-punk revivalism that pretends it's still 1979, though that period is obviously an influence on the music. Like their Austin brethren Spoon, Deep Time are working by subtraction, stripping out of their music what's not propulsive, and making more interesting music because of it. They might not have a classic in them yet--and they might never develop to that point--but there's more than enough going on here to merit keeping an eye on Deep Time.

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