Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.

(Kranky/4AD; 2008)

By Traviss Cassidy | 8 November 2008

As of this review, I’m the fourth writer for this site who’s tackled this beguiling Deerhunter band, and the fifth to write about the band’s frontman, Bradford Cox. Needless to say, no one from the Glow is on the Deerhunter “beat.” (Not having a news section makes this a rather daunting proposition.) In a way, Cox is the steaming hot spud that’s gotten tossed around at CMG by alternately loving and indifferent mitts but never given the constant, loving coddling it has come to expect from other critical foster homes.

I’m not exactly poised to put an end to this cycle. Part of the reason I find myself begrudgingly reviewing two records I actually quite enjoy—Microcastle and its milky afterbirth, Weird Era Cont.—is that Cox embodies the perfect storm of chic musical leanings (and if one thing’s for sure, it’s that he leans on his forbears) and sturdy critical backing which has elicited a saint-him-or-damn-him reaction in the blogger community. And thus the hesitation: his music belongs at neither of those knee-jerk poles, so now what? By congealing the perennially hip tropes of krautrock, ‘80s post-punk, and shoegaze, Deerhunter have accomplished what countless contemporary indie rock bands have at least aspired to, only they’ve done so better than most while sporting a willowy frontman who blogs about his poop. Which has no bearing on the guy’s art, by the way—that is, until Cox embraces the medium of scratch-and-sniff.

This is why I feel my enjoyment of Microcastle goes hand-in-hand with my ability to separate Cox the Attention-whore of the Interweb from Cox the Artiste. As this newest and tastiest Deerhunter album proves, here is a band that knows what it likes, knows it well, and translates said like into some competent-to-awesome indie-rock jams. Period. No fanfare required. And the best thing about Microcastle is how much there is to wrap your meat hooks around. This isn’t some dramatic reinvention of the band as “accessible” or “pop,” it’s an excavation of the melodies and tight structures that have always been poking their little heads out from beneath their music’s poisoned soil. And the brush-up is, for the most part, magnificent.

The most potentially affecting tunes from Cryptograms Side B and the Fluorescent Grey EP were often pummeled to oblivion by sheets of white noise and effects-pedal squall to the point of bleaching out their hue. Microcastle, on the other hand, with its polished sheen and more favorable attitude toward negative space (or at least differentiation among instruments), offers, at its best moments, a certain jolt the band only previously hinted at. From the heaving exhales and riff-edifices of “Cover Me (Slowly)” to the Here Come the Warm Jets (1973) guitar treatments of “Agoraphobia” to the fist-pumping SY groove of “Nothing Ever Happens,” Deerhunter simply ooze with confidence, exuding a palpable synchronicity as each band member more than ably handles his/her chops. This isn’t to imply that the Deerhunter of yore was any less dexterous; it’s just that the skills as demonstrated on Microcastle are, finally, in plain view and draped in a more crystalline backdrop. So when I say that “Never Stops” rocks the most pleasure-point-tickling coda of any indie rock song of 2008 thus far, I’m not “buying into” its druggy coolness or grand Importance as purported by the internet, I’m just (correctly) evaluating what’s right in front of my face.

Microcastle perhaps begins with too brisk a sprint: after a stellar opening trio of songs and two pleasantly rippling half-ballads, the record begins to lose some steam. Sure, we don’t get a yawning lull equal to that of Cryptograms, but “Nothing Ever Happened” provides, with its title, an apt summation of the preceding three songs, which revert to the bedside aimlessness of Cox’s solo Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel (2008). Luckily, apart from the vague mope-rock “Neither of Us, Uncertainly,” Microcastle ends strong. Much has been made of Cox’s obsession with teenage melodrama, and the opening bars of “Twilight At Carbon Lake” would make for a great slow-dance number for sulking teens sporting asymmetric bangs. ‘Cept this prom ends Carrie-style, ketchup-y blood gushing indiscriminately and everything ablaze—ends in a heap of its own jagged rubble.

Though Cox has shown an interest in sex + violence and/or death imagery since Fluorescent Grey (or basically since his lyrics became discernable), Deerhunter’s music is still resolutely asexual and alien. Smartly, Microcastle stops short of alienating, an adjective more than a few scribes have lobbed at Cryptograms. Even if we still can’t identify with the guy (I’m pretty tall, skinny, and white myself, but still…), he no longer seems to willfully construct a wall of paranoia between himself and the listener. We may not have the ability (or courage) to venture into the dude’s skull to decipher his preoccupation with crucifixions or self-interment, but we can rock out with him just the same, gaunt preying mantis frames swaying in unison. This is precisely why, for my personal enjoyment, I must separate Deerhunter the Band from Bradford Cox the Concept, even if that Concept is merely a construct of our critical fancy. (It is.) Because I know, deep down, that Bradford Cox is just a guy who loves what he does and loves providing music to his many adoring fans. And jeez, even most of the just-laid-to-tape jams on Weird Era Cont. are engaging, a testament to his band’s prolificacy and good will. So, I think we’ll be all right, me and Bradford.