cLOUDDEAD

Ten

(Mush; 2004)

By Scott Reid | 16 March 2004

NOTES ON FIRST LISTEN (Dec/03)

>> The lyrics direct and succinct, flowing from one granulated image to another ("a single long-stemmed rose resting between two mountain antlers;" "a strawberry in an ostrich throat"). . . like on their seminal debut, the band manages to make their music varied and ever-changing; for every lyrical idea that perpetuates its way from their drug-addled minds only to quickly dissolve to make room for the next, so would the productional spine courtesy of Odd Nosdam. . . but whereas before they would pack five or six twists into each track, lending a new soundscape to each lyrical portrait, with Ten, they've opted to keep the abstract poetry tied to a repetitious series of ideas, now encased in far shorter structures, sometimes even approaching --no fucking kidding--something normal.

>> Well, almost. If they give you a verse-chorus structure, they're bound to toss in something to twist it to the point where it feels slightly uncomfortable. Still, it's a little frustrating to watch cLOUDDEAD lose one of the fundamental things that had made me fall in love with them in the first place: long, dense songs that would last all of five minutes but seem like twenty. This is far closer to an amalgamation of their solo material that had always been pretty removed from the work they did together, not to mention far less intriguing...

>> Perhaps if they'd saved all the great ideas used on their numerous side-projects, this could've been the masterpiece it deserved to be; imagine pieces of In the Shadow of the Living Room spliced in ("Split Screen" placed between "Teen Keen" and "Rhymer's Room" would've been phenomenal), along with minor sections of Oaklandazulasylum, The No Music and, to a lesser degree, No More Wig for Ohio. I expected an entire album as strong as "Rifle Eyes" from this group (it as a two-sided single with "Teen Keen Skip" or "Physics of a Unicycle," the other two great tracks here, would've been far more promising), but at times it sounds like they've just run out of ideas and are coasting on previous ones.

>> Even with these initial disappointments, their spark--the thing that made them so special, enough in fact to have their debut be my favorite album of the '00s so far--comes from the same place it did on their debut: just how fucking weird they can be. The experimentation (ranging from their usual vocal quirks to production "tricks" that quickly turn from superfluous to essential--like the truncated sample that drives "Teen Keen Skip") had always seemed so natural. . . and this, added to the pastoral quality of the worn-vinyl backings, created a debut unlike anything I'd heard before it or, it's safe to say three years later, after it. Ten just doesn't have the same impact, which isn't to say it isn't a good--perhaps even great in several respects--record on its own, but something important is undeniably missing.

...THREE MONTHS LATER

Ten is undeniably an album crafted from instinct; not much of their material, despite the variety and amount of experimentation involved, sounds like it was the result of laborious months in a studio. The lyrics, harking back to Dose One's stream-of-consciousness poetry on his seminal work with Boom Bip, Circle, retain a similar "say what we see as we see it" feel --the political ranting aside, like the anti-gun rally "Son of a Gun"--that matches Odd's on-the-fly production turns (except, as mentioned above, to a far less degree than on the debut). Together, it really creates the unpredictability of cLOUDDEAD's work, both in terms of quality and style, that makes their albums such unusual listens. Certainly first impressions are important and I doubt many putting this album on for the first time, especially if it's their introduction to cLOUDDEAD, will be able to wholly embrace it. My first instincts on the record, coming from the mindset of someone who was borderline obsessed with their debut, are still fairly apt, though some of the album's best moments take a series of listens to warm up to--or, perhaps more accurately, just get your head around.

"Pop Song" and "Son of a Gun" have grown on me the most since those cursory listens (now only mildly hindered by their lyrics), but "Physics of a Unicycle," "Rifle Eyes" and "Teen Keen Skip" remain the record's most rewarding and immediate tracks. Like the best from their debut, they retain enough in their dexterous construction, often like compact suites, to remain as interesting after months of solid listening. "Dead Dogs Two," which I remember not discussing in the above notes because I knew I'd need time to know where I stood on it, is the most straightforward of the lot--which still isn't saying much--and while it's a nice attempt to connect with those who find their usual fare a little too alienating, it ultimately has the opposite effect. Nosdam's production is fantastic, much like on the rest of the record (saving the weakest tracks, like "Velvet Ant," from being complete toss-aways), but the hook is mediocre at best and its lyrics are some of the most grating they've written yet.

Parts of my initial criticism also still apply after a few months of solid listening. Their debut was brilliantly consistent and subtle, tossing around five solid album's worth of partial ideas in its hour of play, but this isn't the same creature. The ideas are far more fleshed out and complete (which in theory sounds like a good thing, but here we are) and the lyrics are far more the focus, often following in the annoyingly absurd trend of Hymie's Basement and Themselves. "Rhymer's Only Room" is an interesting case in that it's the only track that is almost entirely without instrumental backing, centered instead around a repetitive chant, percussion and sporadic bursts of noise. In the end, I think it's a worthwhile inclusion, and though the melody is far from the catchiest thing you'll hear this year, it is, atmospherically, one of the more impressive short ideas they've written. I'm still not sure why it was given it's own track, however; on the debut, it probably would've been just part one of four or five sections giving it a more solid context.

However, as mentioned before, it is really Nosdam's production that holds the record together. The mostly instrumental "3 Twenty," though also forgettable the first few times around, ultimately proves (much like "cLOUDDEAD Number Five") to be an affectingly lo-key ambient piece with haunting background samples that sound like they were culled from Sigur Rós' Von. "Our Name" closes the album (not counting the superfluous hidden track) on another production-heavy note, pushing what are very possibly Dose's best lyrics on the album to the background as, sample by sample, the song builds and then dissipates into its loud droning climax. A wall of distorted washes over a simple progression repeating underneath that's, much like the ghost-like harmonies floating on its very edges, barely audible at all. It seems like a rather sudden end, even with Ten's modest length, but "Our Name" is as good and unpredictable a way as any to end a record like this.

When people told me they couldn't get into cLOUDDEAD's debut, I had a hard time figuring out why; the reasons for not caring for Ten are far more clear, just as they were with Hymie's Basement, In the Shadow of the Living Room or The No Music. Ten is a much better record than any other those, but it still manages to, lyrically, fall into the predictable Anticon mould more times than I would have preferred. Their creative spark together is very much still alive, but I would hope that the next record would find the group capitalizing more on their obvious strengths instead of branching out into forgettable glitch-pop like "Dead Dogs Two."

That is if they return at all--considering the inter-band politics flying like monkey shit during its recording (scan through the liner notes for what is one of the most clear harbingers of a breakup you could ever read), this could very well be their last work together. As a possible swan song, Ten isn't the strongest final statement they could've made, but in and of itself--ignoring how much I've compared it to their debut and ignoring the few glaring disappointments that, in the end, only barely belie everything great about the record--it's very possibly the most experimentally rewarding release I've heard so far this year and a shoo-in for a top ten spot come years end. To think it's also a bit of a disappointment says far more about the talent of those behind it than it does about their minor misstep.