Washed Out

Within and Without

(Sub Pop; 2011)

By Brian Riewer | 31 August 2011

What is chillwave? Those most prominently bestowed with the distinction—Washed Out, Toro Y Moi, Memory Tapes, Neon Indian, for example—share very little: Washed Out’s debut, Life of Leisure (2009), sounds fairly indistinguishable from Italo Disco revivalists on Italians Do It Better; Toro Y Moi’s debut, Causers of This (2010), is steeped in wiggly post-hip-hop production; Neon Indian’s Psychic Chasms (2009) recalls smarmy ’80s synth-pop; and Memory Tapes’ Seek Magic (2009) leans on…trip-hop I guess? And then what amount to the genre’s “forebears”—say, Panda Bear and Ariel Pink—sound like the Beach Boys and thoroughly coked-out psychedelic pop, respectively. It’s as if the name was decided upon, released, promoted, and canonized before the entire world of music consumption stopped to ponder what it is they might be defining.

Inevitably, and unfortunately, what binds these acts together to comprise the chillwave genre ends up being the shittiest parts of their shtick—and what really only Panda Bear pulls off effectively: the crass wistfulness for music whose only defining notion is nostalgia (hey, all ’80s music), and the vaseline-smeared haze of bedroom or pseudo-bedroom recordings which makes lyricism and musicianship difficult to perceive. Much less evaluate.

That these bands don’t match in any great, overarching extent makes calling something “chillwave” at least partially absurd. With an open-ended classification and the cornucopia of acts that have fallen under its subheading without much brazenly obvious overlap between them, the best we can do without scuttling the entire mess is to sort bands as “genre X with chillwave tendencies.” As far as my knowledge of genres and bands considered chillwave goes, this holds true for all of them—and how could it not?

Which is why Within and Without—belonging to no readily tenable classification and bearing no “genre X” side of the equation—is so problematic. It’s not pop music, not really; the placid beats and glazed-over, inscrutable vocals surely guarantee this album would never catch on in any mainstream fashion, let alone subscribe to anything resembling traditional pop accessibility. It’s as though lead Washee Ernest Greene wants us unable to interpret whatever it is he’s saying or doing behind that curtain of fog; despite having Sub Pop money, he still wants to throw out an homage to recording in his parents’ basement.

Which is charming and all—but would a cleaner filter on the mic really hamper otherwise barebones songs like “Far Away” or the title track? Upbeat, swarthier songs like “Amor Fati” or Life of Leisure cuts “You’ll See It” and “Lately” employ vocals as textural aspects of the mix, feeding into each song’s overall structure, and in this context the indecipherability doesn’t really matter. But when Greene both paints his voice as lead and by throwing a blanket over it simultaneously, well, doesn’t, not only is he impossible to understand, but the whole of what he’s doing seems to cancel itself out.

The ubiquity of Greene’s vocals on every track robs his voice of ever being an acceptable atmospheric touch, because as is pretty blatantly clear from the outset, Greene is looking to harvest the emotional value of the swarthy timbres present in ambient music but bypass having to work for the same emotional value through song structure or instrumental arrangement or lyrical prowess. So this bastard child isn’t ambient music either, because there is absolutely no context, implied or otherwise, for ambience to exist within or without. Though in all fairness to his ill-formed vocalizations, Greene doesn’t seem to want to make ambient-leaning music; he wants the benefits that strung-out curtains of repetitive sampling can offer, and his pseudo-pop singing waffles around that purpose, gleaning whatever rewards it can. Never mind that in previous outings Greene was able to conjure up impeccably balanced arrangements and thunder-clapping, engaging percussion (see: his remix of “Despicable Dogs”) or booming, groovy bass lines and actual, propulsive boogie (“Get Up” and “Feel It All Around”). As the echoing two-tone synth pulses that open the album on “Eyes Be Closed” or the shimmering bits and throbbing bass line on “Before” indicate, Greene is more concerned with tones as ends in themselves than in how they manipulate or complement the other aspects of the songs.

Further meant to set the table for his yawning emotions are a few chintzy Balearic beat elements strewn throughout Within and Without‘s expanse; combine these with the token “chill vibes” and bland beat programming, and Within and Without exists as a hollow facsimile of Life of Leisure or a poor shell of anything danceable in general, ultimately functioning as preternaturally bulletproof kin to the Sincerely Yours roster and their affiliate brethren. It goes for laid-back and relaxed but it comes off as insomniatic: the vanilla beats, the insipid vocals, the soft atmospherics, all while a weirdly placed hand drum floats into the frame of reference on “Eyes Be Closed,” or a few saccharine guitars cuts in on “Amor Fati,” or a slightly embedded vocal sample on “Before” snaps one uncomfortably back to attention. These gaudy additions and talismans don’t so much characterize Washed Out apart from other bands also named with the likes of chillwave, they just emphasize how completely and deeply the songs here are an amorphous, ill-defined wash.

So what is Within and Without? And what is chillwave? Perhaps the answers to these questions are one and the same, as the puerile elements that made chillwave a somewhat cogent genre, the unfortunate frosting that was smeared on top of the style’s various cakes, is the only edible thing here. Scratch that: it is the only thing here. The entirety of Within and Without is a mishmash of half-recalled thoughts sterilized in a cloud of shit production. It’s contrivance qua contrivance, and if that’s the epitome of the young non-genre, then perhaps, like Within and Without, the term will just cancel itself out.