[27 August 2010]
PopMatters Music Editor
If all you heard was a set of iTunes samples of Wild Nothing’s debut Gemini, you might think you were listening to a nostalgic playlist of ‘80s and ‘90s Anglo alt-rock, spanning post-punk, 4AD art-noise, proto-Britpop, and shoegaze. New Order, the Cure, the Cocteau Twins, the Stone Roses, My Bloody Valentine—their signature sounds all appear in some form or another on Gemini via mastermind Jack Tatum’s canny reconstructions of those iconic groups’ easily recognizable styles.
But to Tatum’s credit, Gemini is much more than a mixtape of repackaged Anglophilia: The most impressive thing about the first album by what’s essentially a one-man-band is the way Tatum takes parts that are so identified with particular artists and reshapes them into songs according to his own cohesive vision and active imagination. Sure, you can’t help but hear Power, Corruption & Lies in the syncopated synth and guitar interplay on “Bored Games”, or the echoing drum machine beat of Psychocandy at the beginning of “My Angel Lonely”, but it’s almost like Tatum draws the listener in through these teases only to pull a bait-and-switch, working from his source material to conjure up his own brand of indie rock that is at once ambitious and immediate. In particular, “My Angel Lonely” takes its Jesus and Mary Chain prompt and runs with it in an entirely different direction, as the track turns as ethereal and soaring as its title suggests, rather than getting scuzzed and fuzzed up à la the Reid brothers.
Indeed, Gemini is most effective when Tatum treats his influences not as blueprints to imitate reverently, but as building blocks to put together a sound that transforms what’s all-too-familiar into something novel and invigorating all over again. Wild Nothing’s hazy shoegazing effects, for instance, are not performed in any literal way, but brought into the mix to evoke a sense of magnitude, especially on “The Witching Hour”, a dark, quiet tune that feels like it has greater scope and depth once it’s adorned with just enough of a My Bloody Valentine sheen. The standout single “Chinatown” takes the chiming, driven guitars and tripped-out vocal melodies of the Stone Roses out of their Madchester context and puts them into a indie framework, retaining the original’s good vibes and even a bit of its bluster to embellish what might otherwise have been another pleasant enough seven-inch A-side.
So while he could’ve taken the introspective DIY route effectively, Tatum comes up with a basement-rock effort that blows up what’s in his head into colorful soundscapes that are more expansive than the suburban scenes that his songs are about. In some ways, Wild Nothing’s approach is the inverse of its closest contemporary analogue, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart—whereas Pains’ warm and fuzzy cardigan-pop goes up-close and personal to grab your attention, Wild Nothing’s broader palette makes an impression by creating the illusion of size and scale for Tatum’s introspective fantasies. “Summer Holiday” starts out with a strum that is pure Pains, only to turn its intimate crushed-out narrative (“Once you sneak into my room / And crawl under the covers / Talk nonsense in your sleep”, Tatum breathlessly sings) into a bold, ingenious pop song that makes everyday desires seem like the stuff of dreams. “O, Lilac” and “Our Composition Book” also bear striking resemblances to Pains’ songs, except there’s a greater emphasis on the associative qualities of their atmospheric moods than on catchy storytelling.
Occasionally, Tatum gets carried away paying tribute to his muses, particularly on the shimmery Cocteau Twins mock-up “Drifter” and the Cure-cribbed title track. Still, at least Tatum shows some good taste in picking his influences, and it’s not like recreating them as well as he does almost all on his own is an easy task. So even if Wild Nothing seems like it’s standing on the shoulders of giants on Gemini, there’s every indication that Tatum is using his inspirations as a launching pad for something bigger both now and in the future.