Velella Velella

The Bay of Biscay

(Self-released; 2005)

By Chet Betz | 8 November 2007

Almost a year ago, Velella Velella band/production outfit leader Andrew Means came looking for my RIYL impressions of his music; he was going to throw out the obligatory reference points in some document meant to grab more attention for the little rabbity conceptions that he would churn out and I would download from him on something approaching a weekly basis. Means was yammering on about influences like Stereolab and jazz and whatever, and I can't say I was paying much attention because the more despicable mix-and-match heel faculty of my critical brain had already started a-grindin'. I'd recently written up DJ Rels'-but-really-Madlib's Theme for a Broken Soul, so I told him, "You guys sound like DJ Rels. Except good. Not nearly as boring or static. You guys aren't just another alias, another notch on the moniker belt. You're really invested in this, and it shows in the music." Something like that. Means hadn't yet heard the DJ Rels release, so I had done him no service, yet I couldn't help feeling immensely satisfied with myself. I ended the conversation and took a minute to pat my own back.

I suppose this little exchange with Means and countless similar ones would constitute a "conflict of interest," but watch me truck on with nary a second thought.

On The Bay of Biscay, Velella Velella has done grown up. You're gonna have to take my word for it because you've never heard them before, but just trust me. They've moved from V. Velella to spelling out their whole name, like people when they want to make a better impression, like the guy I've always known as "Clay" hazarding to bring back the "Clayton" when he started his CMG conscription. Additionally, the music made by Means and Michael Burton, his multi-instrumentalist partner, no longer sounds like the career version of DJ Rels; it's become far harder to define and categorize. Oh, but here I go, and this is going to be unwieldy because I want to frame the description in a way that shies from extremities, VV being a duo that shies from extremities; what we have here, folks, is the Neptunes for people who like vibes and Burt Bacharach more than marching drums and Snoop Dogg, a less blunted and referential Madlib on his jazzy tip, M83 with an aim at grooving and not so much at halcyon transcendence, Ratatat with more maximal arrangement that intends at a more minimal visceral impact. Plus a healthy dose of Beckesque whiteboy funk and breezy Sea and Cake atmosphere. The Bay of Biscay is dance music for only half the parts of the body, freeing the mental from physical override so that listeners like Amir Nezar can head-nod to the beat but still chin-stroke at the compositional gung-ho on display. Love you, Amir.

You read that and look at the song titles and say: "So it's Out Hud." Not quite, and remember, we're not gonna speak about the Hud's last release, and furthermore, you should listen to "Do Not Fold / Do Not Bend" because it may be the opener of the year, a Junior Senior party track with eons more maturity and skill than Jr. and not a trace of nauseating irony. By the time the guitar's freaking, Means throws a Lidellian holler of the refrain over the all-embracing community clap, and I start feeling like that this is what IDM really stands for. The rest of the record's a stamp of confirmation, maybe even moreso in some ways because the majority of The Bay of Biscay is not as song-based as "Do Not Fold," instead offering dynamic, lush beat-arrangements, the consistent quality of which makes for sharp relief in a year with disappointing releases from Prefuse 73 and Four Tet.

In an interview with Three Imaginary Girls' Chris Estey, Means and Burton and live band members Jeremy Hadley and Sylvia Chen discussed the occasional appearance of vocal and lyric on the album, in this case referring specifically to the lines, "All the kids play on the Interstate / Two bed times / Interstate," from the slinky, wheezy standout "Hunter."

Means: The voice for me is just another instrument. At least on this song, it's like the way you play a guitar. The rhythm, the intonation, the semblance. Any set of syllables or sound would work just as well.

Burton: The vocals have theme, but we wanted them to sound like. A certain rhythm.

Means: The song is always about the rhythm of the music, not the lyrics.

Hadley: You can't deduct what a song is going to be about with "Hard Egg Timer." Listeners are going to deduce what a song is about for themselves. I've really warmed up to that.

So what is the final goal or destination of an album like The Bay of Biscay, where it is only in pieces about jamming and dancing and knob-twiddling, where something like the title and association by which other primarily instrumental ventures (i.e. Godspeed) create meaning is largely forsaken? While hugely influenced by Madlib creations like Shades of Blue (2003) and Yesterday's New Quintet, and possibly boxed in with a somebody like The Go! Team, one can't pin Velella Velella's work down to recontextualization and pastiche. They don't use samples that much. Rather, VV seem entirely focused on fashioning something new, something that is their own. They don't end up hopelessly insular and self-indulgent because, with The Bay of Biscay, the final destination or goal is to create an odyssey for the listener, a sprawling one hour adventure that's all about making true the "joy-in-the-journey" cliche.

There's a lot of joy to be had in the journey, too, with the chill, minute rave of "Man, What a Stupid Slogan" or the building, '80s Friedkin car chase of "Telephone Poles For Sale" or the incredible vox-sample-and-breakbeat wallop of "So Much For What's His Face," a definite highlight where the drum hits get off the chain, and a new guitar part comes in at 1:43 that follows the synth line and veritably cascades, and then a fucking other guitar at 1:58 that pushes the cascade all out onto your kitchen floor. Every little joy culminates in "Charlie and the Great Friday Sailing Adventure," perhaps the one leadingly-titled song on the record and the one that the press release rather pointedly calls evocative of "the end of Truffaut's The 400 Blows." It's no compromise, though, because just like the end of that film, there's an utter ambiguity in the solitary guitar chords that conclude The Bay of Biscay, an aural freeze-frame to an unfinished story that invites listeners to transpose their own meaning and catharsis. So then roll on to "Casio'd," what Means calls the album's "credits."

The record is an hour long, and there does seem to be a little too much reliance on canned claps and vibes, and many'll probably desire more of the directness found in songs like "Do Not Fold / Do Not Bend" and "Hunter," but it's too rare a thing that an album comes along which is both fresh and subtle. Willfully open to listener enjoyment and participation, The Bay of Biscay is just as willful in its refusal to pander to expectations or to give in to the temptation of dictating its purpose. In talking about the opening song with Three Imaginary Girls, Means says out loud what I think to be the two major ingredients of Velella Velella's music: "community and space." With me he talked about the band making music that is "right from our guts." The final result is an album created forthrightly but with the utmost respect for what the audience can bring.