Here it is, the highly anticipated follow-up to 2007's Cryptograms album which launched the band into the stratosphere of hype. Whether or not that was or is deserved is entirely subjective. Microcastle was recorded over the course of a week at Rare Book Studios in Brooklyn, New York with Nicolas Verhes in April of this year. The album was recorded as a four-piece consisting of Bradford Cox, Lockett Pundt, Joshua Fauver, and Moses Archuleta. 'Saved by Old Times' features a vocal collage by Cole Alexander of the Black Lips, and the album also features two songs with lead vocals by guitarist Lockett Pundt, 'Agoraphobia', and 'Neither of Us, Uncertainly'.
Review by Heather Phares
The narcotic drones and fragmented art-punk Deerhunter explored on Cryptograms made the album a love-it-or-hate-it proposition for many indie rock fans; where some heard eclectic expansiveness, others heard incohesive experiments. Microcastle, the band's first album with guitarist Whitney Petty, brings together the disparate elements that made Cryptograms fascinating and frustrating, adding a little more pop and quite a bit more studio polish (this album was recorded in a week, as opposed to the two days it took to lay down Cryptograms). Deerhunter still changes from gentle to storming at a moment's notice, as on "Microcastle" itself, which drifts along like a slow motion surf-rock ballad, then catches fire about two-thirds of the way through, and the album's middle stretch of songs is just as lulling as Cryptograms' opening suite, but a lot more melodic.
These fever-dream moments are punctuated by pop songs that are as crystal clear as they are warped. The trippy innocence of '60s psych pop is a major influence on Microcastle, especially "Little Kids"' jangly guitars and sparkling strangeness, and the acid-pop flashback "Saved by Old Times," which is slinky and mischievous enough to be a spiritual cousin of Donovan's "Season of the Witch." Bradford Cox and company get even more accessible on the bittersweet "Never Stops" and the excellent "Nothing Ever Happened," which lets zigzagging guitars and keyboards tussle over one of Microcastle's most memorable melodies. Guitarist Lockett Pundt's songs balance Cox's extremes, with "Neither of Us, Uncertainly" nodding to the album's hazier moments and "Agoraphobia" blending in with its crisper songs. When "Twilight at Carbon Lake" swells from a hallucinatory '50s slow dance ballad into a triumphant storm of guitars, Microcastle proves that Deerhunter can make music that sounds very different from what they'd done before, yet still feels of a piece with their body of work.
Microcastle / Weird Era Cont.
Deerhunter toured with Nine Inch Nails this summer, making a stop at Colorado's famed Red Rocks Amphitheatre. That canyon found the Atlanta noise-rock quintet at a precipice. In the few months prior, Deerhunter had added a new guitarist, Whitney Petty, to replace the departed Colin Mee. Lead singer Bradford Cox had released his debut solo album, Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel, under the name Atlas Sound. The band's third album, Microcastle, and its would-be surprise bonus disc, Weird Era Cont., had both leaked half a year before they were due in stores. Unimpressed NIN fans were writing blog posts comparing Cox to Geddy Lee.
Like Trent Reznor, Cox is a classic outcast. But the real question is why Deerhunter aren't opening for Radiohead, as their friends in Liars and Grizzly Bear have done. Admirers and detractors of Deerhunter's 2007 breakout album, Cryptograms, all seemed to agree on one thing: Despite its status as an underground hit, it didn't explore totally new sounds. Radiohead didn't invent krautrock or avant-garde electronic music, either-- let alone UK post-punk, American alt-rock, or the Beatles. Instead, what they've done is use a stunning assortment of shrewd instrumental ideas to express contemporary anxiety and alienation, all in the form of pop songs, on albums conceived to be more than the sum of their parts.
Deerhunter don't sound a lot like Radiohead, but they've absorbed the UK rock icons' outlook as fully as anybody. If Cryptograms holds any "encoded message," I argued in a Pitchfork review, it's this: Deerhunter are a pop band. Microcastle/Weird Era Cont. proves me half-right. It sidesteps much of the art-damaged squall of previous Deerhunter records, but it doesn't embrace 1950s and 60s pop as intensely as lead singer Bradford Cox had intimated in early interviews. If Cryptograms brutalized the pop ideal like a guitar-wielding David Lynch, leaving the follow-up Fluorescent Grey EP an exquisite corpse, then Microcastle resurrects it, scar tissue and all. The resulting 2xCD set captures urgent and imaginative songs that reorganize 4AD haze, off-kilter indie pop, crashing garage-punk, forward-leaning krautrock, and hypnotic Kranky ambience into a singular-sounding call-to-arms.
Here, the band comes into their own by applying their own inspiringly distinctive, bleakly appealing sensibility to whatever ideas happen to move them. Fist-pumping first single "Nothing Ever Happened" shares most of a title with a Pavement deluxe-edition bonus track while sounding a lot like Magazine's more straightforward, hard-charging side. Another standout, "Saved by Old Times", pipes in the Black Lips' Cole Alexander for a dual-channel monologue disorientingly reminiscent of the Velvet Underground's "The Murder Mystery". (If you play it backwards, Cole namedrops Johnny Cash.)
"I take what I can/ I give what I have left," Cox sings softly, as if explaining his musical approach, on "Green Jacket", a piano-based track at the center of the album. It's part of the languid song suite that ends the first side of the album's vinyl edition and breaks the disc up much the way ambient interludes divided Cryptograms. Only this time, the lull lasts just 10 minutes, not 20, and even at its least structured it's always more accessible. "Microcastle" applies the quiet-quiet-loud structure of the Breeders' "No Aloha" to a slack, laconic rumination on starting anew. With treated mbiras, "Activa" turns the dream-pop of Cox's Atlas Sound solo work into a nightmare vision of wasted lives.
Despite an outsized and often compelling persona, Cox is in some ways absent from Microcastle. The first recognizable voice we hear belongs to guitarist Lockett Pundt, on second track "Agoraphobia"; Pundt's gentle, repetitive wordplay-- "Cover me, come for me, comfort me"-- cozies up against sunlit psych-pop (OK, about wanting to be buried alive for someone else's sexual gratification). Bass player Josh Fauver wrote most of "Nothing Ever Happened". The guitars are big, bright, and unusually unfucked-with. There's a finger-tapping guitar solo. All credit to Moses Archuleta for the propulsive drums.
Deerhunter's slight shift toward directness mirrors, to an extent, the move Liars made with their harder-rocking self-titled album. It doesn't mean Microcastle breaks entirely away from album-unifying concepts. On bell-splashed Cox-Pundt collaboration "Little Kids", getting older means getting deader. By Pundt-led "Neither of Us, Certainly", it's a fate devoutly to be wished. Cox's 50s and 60s pop influences play a small but significant role, linking the wordless, Flamingoes-esque opener "Cover Me (Slowly)" to the warped Everly Brothers waltz of finale "Twilight at Carbon Lake". The Beatles' "Please Please Me" claimed that "there's always rain in my heart"; on dynamic single candidate "Never Stops", there's always winter. In the end, "Twilight" says smell ya later to "the frozen shit that was in your heart."
If you thought the bonus disc would just be crappy outtakes, then you don't know Cox. Weird Era Cont. is surprisingly great in its own right, allowing Deerhunter to join Los Campesinos! in the two-good-albums-in-2008 club. This record sparkles right from the ghostly noise-pop of "Backspace Century" and the jerky dance-punk of "Operation". The girl-group bounce of "Vox Humana" puts Cox's underrated lyrical skills on full display, while "Vox Celeste" throws the neo-shoegaze gauntlet down in the face of the reunited My Bloody Valentine. Reverb drenches Pundt's voice on the luminous "Dot Gain". Instrumentals make a fine return, too, ranging from Faust-meets-Animal Collective loops to noise-music drones. "Focus Group" is a sweetly chiming Smashing Pumpkins-esque guitar anthem that nearly rivals "Nothing Ever Happened" for skewed pop immediacy.
The only song that appears on both discs is "Calvary Scars", which recounts a boy's willing, public crucifixion. It's a dual theme Deerhunter also explored on their self-titled first album's scrawly post-punk barb "Adorno", which mashes up crucifixion and suicide. On Microcastle, "Calvary Scars" is an ambient lullaby with mouthlike percussion; Weird Era Cont.'s "Calvary Scars II / Aux." is the track's heavier-sounding apotheosis, with an extended coda that's a bit like the live version of "You Made Me Realise", followed by a meditative electronic hum that's a bit like... the ringing in your ears after the live version of "You Made Me Realise". Or the calm after a cataclysm. There's a clear parallel with Radiohead's "Morning Bell", which appeared, in different versions, on both Kid A and Amnesiac.
From "Agoraphobia" to "Neither of Us, Uncertainly" to "Calvary Scars II / Aux.", sacrifical suicide could be a metaphor for artistic creation. On Microcastle/Weird Era Cont., Cox sacrifices himself-- or at least, his colorful persona-- for the sake of Deerhunter's art. On stage, he really does sacrifice his illness-damaged body. "I take what I can/ I give what I have left." From a band who, unlike their peers No Age, have studiously avoided politics, spreading the idea that salvation can be found, or at least glimpsed, in art-- let alone in stupid pop records! That you probably downloaded for free!-- is a politically potent act. Hope. Change. At the very least, a reason not to slit our throats before President Palin decides to nuke the world in 2017.
- Marc Hogan, October 27, 2008