There’s a difference between lo-fi fuzz and garage rock reverb. The former uses tape hiss to evoke unassuming intimacy, either through necessity or appropriation. The latter is intentionally designed to obscure distinct parts, creating space between the listener and the art. This is the difference between Wallscenery Demos‘ previous album Check This! and new album Half Asleep. Half Awake.
Check This! is a pastiche of lo-fi ruminations and found sounds. There was tape hiss in and through it, but it was first and foremost and intensely personal experience. I could tell what was happening the entire time.
Half Asleep. Half Awake. is much less of a collage, as only the highlight “Money Lebowski” includes found sound. Instead, the album sees WD mastermind James Hicken trying to transition to more solid songwriting. The songs are longer than his previous work, and they are more fleshed out. He spells it out in the short but insightful liner notes, stating “The album is a departure … ”
The 2:34 “Wrote,” one of the shorter tunes here, pushes the upward bounds of what Hicken felt comfortable committing to tape before. It is a calm, acoustic-led indie-pop tune, still vaguely reminiscent of Pedro the Lion. The vocals have some light reverb on them, and it’s fine, because the rest of the song (keys, drums, background vocals) is audible.
The mumbly acoustic ditty “And Falling” is reminiscent of the charms from Check This!. The beautiful “Money Lebowski” calls up comparisons to folktronic producers and the Album Leaf, as it pairs a droning background synth and heavily modified snares with a gentle acoustic melody and found movie clips. A whole album of this would be a glorious experience.
But Hicken is still not completely confident in his songwriting ability, as he covers several of his works in the aforementioned oppressive reverb. Almost without exception, the longer a song gets, the more of it is caked in great washes of ghostly sound. The 4:28 of “Gotta Watch Out For a Year” would be a great song if it weren’t so hard to find inside itself (except for a surprisingly clear bass line).
This reaches its zenith in the instrumental six-minute closer “The Club Is Open,” which reverbs literally every part of the song (drums, guitars, beats, heck, even the synths sound doubled). As a song, “The Club Is Open” is not bad; as the conclusion of this album, it keeps the idioms but not the songwriting structures, resulting in listener confusion.
Half Asleep. Half Awake. sounds like a transitional document, which is fitting: Hicken describes its main topic as “relocation.” It feels less solid than Check This!, due in part to the recording style and the songs contained therein. There are flashes of brilliance and markers that hopefully point in a good direction: “Money Lebowski” next to “The Club Is Open” is a surprisingly effective pairing, and that’s almost a third of the album’s 33-minute running time.
James Hicken’s got skills, but this incarnation isn’t the best use of them. He can write good songs; he doesn’t have to hide or obscure his work in cavernous reverb.
Wallscenery Demos‘ Check This! is exactly the type of release that I love covering in Independent Clauses. James Hicken, the mastermind behind Wallscenery Demos, is a gifted songwriter who combines disparate genres and seemingly incoherent elements into one seamless album. Hicken’s reach extends from rap to indie dance to Beach Boys-esque pop to modern folk, and yet the songs never sound kitschy or amateur.
The album plays out not as individual songs, but a full album. This is encouraged by Hicken’s prominent use of interludes, which range from twelve to fifty-five seconds. A recording of rain, a voice sample clipped from an advertisement and crowds cheering are just some of the elements he uses to segue one song to the next. And the segues are important, because of the aforementioned genre span that Hicken creates. Folk guitar-led gem “I’m Not Around” would butt up against the low-end thump of the downtempo, Portishead-esque piece “Ain’t Got Nuthin to Say” unless the low-fi buzz of “[one of these days one]” wasn’t a transition. Similarly, the stuttering beats of “Watch Your Back” would overrun the gloriously sedate “My Highest Regards” if the messy dissolution of “[one of these days two]” didn’t intervene.
The best part about Check This! is that there’s not a quality distinction between Hicken’s various genre choices. He makes everything flow perfectly; he knows when to combine genres, and when to leave well enough alone. “My Highest Regards” is a straight-up melancholy indie-pop song, and it is great. Adding anything else to it would have made it kitschy. Hicken’s solid decisions as a songwriter and incredibly strong control of mood make this album into the great piece of music that it is.
There are some problems; Hicken’s voice is often the weak point in his music. He knows it; he often covers his voice in reverb or distortion, drops it low in the mix, and even sings about it. It’s not the fault of his songwriting skill: the compositions are solid, and the vocal parts he writes for himself are good. It’s just that his voice is often unsuited to pull off the things that his brain creates. This is unfortunate, as several songs here are not as good as they could be simply because of a poor vocal performance. But at points he shows that he knows how to use his voice to his advantage, as “My Highest Regards” is excellent because of the way his vocals work within the music.
Check This! is an incredibly interesting album. It plays like a downtempo indie-rock band (like Pedro the Lion) collaborating with a downtempo producer (like Danger Mouse or Portishead), guesting the indie-fied pop skills of MGMT. There’s enough energy to keep the album from dragging, but the thing revels in being morose. And because Hicken doesn’t try to hide who he is behind slick studio production, Check This! becomes a unique and interesting album that could not have been made by anyone else. I sincerely hope that Hicken keeps writing under the Wallscenery Demos name, or finds a collaborative foil or two to enhance his songwriting prowess with vocal expertise. Either way, there’s gonna be a lot more interesting music from James Hicken, because his songwriting vision is unique.