Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Wallscenery Demos' new incarnation is a bit of a baffler

June 13, 2011

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 Demosprevious 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.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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