Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Recommended recent spins: John Maus; Washed Out

Posted By on Wed, Sep 28, 2011 at 8:06 AM

Two scholarly types craft pop throwbacks; it's not rock 'n' roll, but we like it

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John Maus

We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves

(Ribbon Music)

You could be forgiven for not wanting to enjoy John Maus' music after some particularly eyebrow-raising comments he made about the decline of record shops in America; it's fair to say that, musically and otherwise, he embodies a dreadful desire for anonymous digital disposability of which rock fans are not nearly as wary as they should be. That doesn't change the fact that this derivative, expert album (shades of Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, for whom he's played keyboards) is impressively crafty, and a blast to listen to.

From the synth-addled Peter Murphy sound of "Streetlight" to the sweetly arrogant New Romantic concoction "Hey Moon," this is goth rock directly from the mid-'80s -- if marginally more party-friendly than usual. Maus' vocals tend to be intonations and laments, as distant or heavily reverb-drenched as possible, with little discernible emotion beyond a commitment to a sound. His singing isn't dissimilar to Ian Curtis', but this arrogant Ph.D. is unwilling to betray any of the real-life despair that seeped into Joy Division's records. It's ironic that Maus' most upper-tier prior association is probably his work as a sideman for Animal Collective, since for all the busy attachment to noise he may share with them, one thing you could never charge the Collective with is drab detachment. Aloof is Maus' natural state, for better or worse.

So the clumsily titled We Must Become... becomes worthwhile for its catalog of familiar sounds, well-reproduced, and in that sense it's rather delightful. "Quantum Leap" does a belchy Nick Cave impression, "Keep Pushing On" offers surprisingly pure authenticity in its mysterious '80s dance-pop, while two top tunes in a row offer opposite sides of new wave: "The Crucifix" works the art-rock side, "Head for the Country" is pure pop hookery. Toward the end, Maus' burlesque starts to get labored. The narrow field he's wandered into doesn't give room to escape the probably accidental Berlin / U2 wisps of "Believer," and one doubts the bizarre gangsta Depeche Mode rant "Cop Killer" was meant to be as stupid and funny as it sounds. Still, flukish or not, this LP will offer more pleasure and nostalgia than you expect. It's dangerously easy to fall for.

***

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Washed Out

Within and Without

(Sub Pop)

Ernest Greene isn't a Ph.D., but he does have a master's degree in library science -- no mean feat. After a futile job search (his generation's traditional rite of passage at this point), Greene gave up on trying to find a satisfactory library job and became a chillwave musician instead. That's the world we live in. Libraries are closing right and left, but '80s soft rock revivalists are inexplicably springing up everywhere, feeding a bizarre nostalgia for bloodless Cinemax porn soundscapes bordering on New Age. But as with Mr. Maus' LP above, this record you want to lash out at is well-nigh impossible not to like. The songcraft is nothing special, Greene's vocals are little more than anonymous, but his album has some strange cumulative impact that can't be underestimated.

What's odd about indie rock's embrace of a displaced young professional like Greene is his implicit disgust at the traditional hallmarks of punk and alternative culture. All you have to do is glance at that slick perfume-commercial cover art, before you hear a note of the adult contemporary-derived, synthetically sensual music -- a kissoff to all things fuzzed up and imperfect. In contrast to the barbed treatment of decades-old clichés by Destroyer or Ariel Pink, Washed Out seems as earnest as a 7th Heaven episode. The refreshing element is that this exercise in pure style is quite unpretentious. These spacey half-songs ask very little of their audience beyond passivity: turn off your mind, relax and float downstream, as some non-chillwaver once put it.

Within and Without never really breaks out of its low-key groove, and none of the songs really stand out; it's all very polite and not a little mindless, but at the right moment these keyboard walls, Muzak textures, and oddball samples can enhance a long night in.

More by Nathan Phillips

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