Does It Look Like I'm Here?
(Editions Mego; 2010)
By Chet Betz | 29 May 2010
When I last reviewed Emeralds I compared them to Lebron James’ Cavaliers. This was perhaps a critical mistake, engendered by the Cleveland connection and no doubt by some insatiable desire on my part to engage in a bit of idol worship for the King. Thankfully, or rather unthankfully, I don’t need to kill my idols because they did that well enough on their own and yet I have to remark: where the Cavs were supposed to be better this year (overpay for Shaq so he can at least man up on Dwight Howard, sign Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon to help defend taller perimeter players, score something of a minor coup in nabbing Jamison without really losing Z) the well-known fact is that if they were better, they sure didn’t prove it, a strange series against Boston culminating in the worst Game 5 of anything ever, a crippling blow to the Lebron-centered belief systems of not just Cleveland but, like, all of Ohio—the kind of absurd loss that leaves fans actually hoping there’s truth to the dubious rumor that Delonte West slept with Lebron’s mom just so those fans can start to make sense of this post-LBJ23 world whilst the 2010 free agency period looms like an epochal storm cloud. Firing coach Mike Brown is like handing a band-aid to someone on their way to the incinerator. Should Lebron’s miserable play and apathetic demeanor in that Game 5 somehow not be indicative that he intends to take his self elsewhere, I have no doubt that the city of Cleveland will officially change its name to Bronland.
I plumb this non-angle once again because Emeralds already live in the Bronland of their own imagination. The rest of us may never lay eyes upon those hills flowing with milk and honey, but at least on this record we can listen to what it may sound like. Does It Look Like I’m Here? goes the title, and I imagine this spoken aloud, Emeralds blinking at us as if to suppress their Cheshire-grin. They do not operate on the same plane as us. Cleveland, a not-so-beautiful place where right now thousands of basketball fans are still watching the NBA Playoffs purely out of self-loathing, is somehow also a place where people like the people in Emeralds can live while envisioning a luminous piece of art such as this. And maybe this explains What Happened, er, I mean, what happened in that Game 5. “But of course!” we eureka together, “It’s so simple, so obvious!” Lebron himself is already living in Bronland, and in Bronland (like the heaven it is) everything is fine. The external world is of no consequence. Does it look like Lebron is here? Not really, right? And if listening to this record can help bring us into the same headspace where the King can drop the most important game of his Cavalier career like it’s last night’s burrito, well, sorry, Cleveland, but I’ma put this shit on repeat. The good news is that unlike whatever exclusive emotional morphine our idol was on, we can all share in this bliss. Everyone get out your good headphones.
Whereas the Cavs were supposed to be better, I think this record on paper is probably worse than What Happened (2009). I mean, a bunch of shorter tracks on an ambient record? More accessible, more poppy? The first track’s called “Candy Shoppe”? Fortunately, “on paper” doesn’t exist in Bronland because the truth is that this record is actually better than What Happened or at least the truth is that Emeralds are in a position where “better” is whatever they make it to be. Ambient being a genre with fewer sticking points available to critique, the easiest and most common method of determining how good an ambient album is involves placing its supposed quality in inverse proportion to how boring it is, with the understanding being that ambient records are always at least a little boring. Emeralds, however, do not share in this understanding. Through sheer immediacy and compositional bravura they actually obliterate the stigma; a good illustration is the reaction of Fact to “Candy Shoppe” where they perceive a similarity in the song’s synth bass to the melodic progression of American Football’s “Never Meant” and conclude: “Electro-fuzz translations of decade-old emo classics = A Really Fucking Good Thing (and a breath of fresh air, however unintentional).” Personally, “Candy Shoppe” inevitably reminds me of Fiddy, but then it makes me think that this is the yearning core that every Fiddy single has for the pristine heights of a scaling melody, holy in its utter rightness…but because that core is in the hands of Fiddy it can only be expressed in the form of a mumbled hook and will soon find itself buried under mountains of stupidity. In the hands of Emeralds that core is everything. It is the whole song, blown up into a panorama that fills our ears, our heads, beads up like a dew behind our eyes. I’m not crying. I mean, does it look like I’m even here?
Emeralds are an entity with no Mike Brown to fire, i.e. dead weight to lose. Which may be a strange thing to say about a noise/ambient group since noise/ambient is exactly 76% dead weight, but watch Emeralds zip through an hour’s worth of material like a speed boat skipping across the water. Unlike many of their peers they never let go of the throttle, always placing a high value on the use of momentum, and they never forget to make their textures pop. The friction of heavily contrasting elements creates a perpetual potential for fire, reminding one of a nonexistent time when ambient was hot and gritty. But, seriously, there’s something bleeding-edge fresh about Emeralds’ brand of analog-meets-electronic retroism; Eno, Vangelis, Popol Vuh—they’d get crunk to this. “Double Helix” grinds like 2-step made out of funky synth and spiral staircases. Which, I gotta say, makes this record barely “ambient” at all. It’s about one drum set away from being totally righteous prog. I mean, album centerpiece “Genetic” has about ten minutes of Mark McGuire’s labyrinthine guitar noodling, it’s just not given any of the special treatment we’re accustomed to hearing for guitar noodling and is maybe even subsumed a bit by the sci-fi thrum of synths getting their asses worked off. The balance is supreme, meaning that what we have here is maximalist ambient or the chillest yet most potent sort of electronica, music that never loses its fierce delicacy or its sharp sense of whimsy—caviar with Pop Rocks. And we get track after track of this, rapid synth arpeggios almost percussively accenting beautiful if simple progressions with churning analog and diaphanous leads boldly exploring the space: interchangeable parts in a consistent method that brings us ever back to Bron-bronland.
There are dark undercurrents everywhere, for sure, which only makes the play of light upon the surface that much more mesmerizing. I think of “It Doesn’t Arrive” and the way it builds off a choppy, nearly sinister pan effect into those melancholy guitar licks and then Emeralds’ signature single-note vocal patch, a higher synth sheen, and a new line from McGuire cut across the track’s horizon like dawn’s first light breaking on a restless ocean. But while the cumulative effect of this music is often beatific, the pieces of which that vision is made each tremble with curiosity or surge with excitement. This is Emeralds’ secret: their music is able to powerfully convey something transcendent because the transcendent is reflected in how viscerally the music reacts to it. The thing is, if Bronland really were anything like this, the Cavs would never have lost Game 5. James would have shattered every statistic and crumbled their remains into chalk dust to hurl up in the air, inhaling victory. Bronland is a farce, a silly nothing, obviously…but the world that Emeralds create is real, it is vital, and all they want to know is can we see it. Because that’s where they are. And it’s here if we can feel it.