[19 June 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Wymond Miles began his solo departure from his old band, the Fresh & Onlys, by offering up a debut EP earlier this year, the gloomily lush Earth Has Doors. That album felt like a studio project, something carefully and studiously built and while it was a solid layering of blurry sounds, it also felt a bit stilted, like Miles was pushing too hard to find his own sound, to distance himself from his band.
For his first proper full-length, he sped up the process. The songs that comprise Under the Pale Moon were written quickly and with more basic arrangements. The melodies and hooks are more immediate, the songs more like a jangling, soaring kind of rock music than expansive pop experiments. This new approach suits Miles much better and gives us his true debut as a solo artist. These songs have the same deft idea of space, but the space here has edges. Emotions are hemmed in, tensed up, and Miles sounds downright hungry in the best parts of the album. The album followed a time where Miles lost a friend and family members, but its hardly a lament. Instead, it seems all the more driven for the loss, and the album is always trying to get into your blood.
“Strange Desire” sets up the parameters of the sound right up front. The guitars jangle out into space and the drums thump while Miles croons over the melee. “I’m so tired of this strange desire tearing this flesh and fragile bone,” he bleats out, his voice a low tremble, equal parts heartbreak and frenetic tension. The rundown guitar lead that slices in will make you think of the Cure—and not for the last time on this record—but it’s still a song that feels very unique to Miles. It may sound like so many other reverb- and chorus-happy bands out there, but Miles stakes his claim with keen details and depth of feeling. You can feel the moonlight seeping into a room on “Pale Moon”. And on the final track, the haunting “Trapdoors and Ladders”, he groans out slowly, “We’re all caught in the attic and looking for trapdoors, / and I’m looking for ladders.”
This is a quiet but important point to end the record on, since the minor-chord phrasings and Miles’ dour singing might make you think he’s another sad bastard. But Under the Pale Moon succeeds because, in spite of its overcast vibe, it never wallows in self-pity. “The Thirst” surges with ringing guitars that shimmer bright over big, thundering drums and dry-as-bone bass lines. “You and I Are of the Night” has the same power, but smoothes them out into a blue-light swayer, with cleaner guitar lines. On both, Miles singing ramps up, adopting a lilting power to his usual low warble that serves him well.
In those moments you can feel the drive under all these songs, the genuine power of them. The songs can try to force the vitality a little bit, and when they do the energy turns into melodrama. The song titles along—from “Run Like the Hunted” to “Youth’s Lonely Wilderness”—start to oversell the desperation, and then there are moments where the vitality feels borrowed. Part of this most likely comes from writing songs so quickly, so that it’s the songs we love that get subconsciously stuck and sometimes come out in our own work. So it may not be on purpose that “Youth’s Lonely Wilderness” sounds so much like Arcade Fire’s “City With No Children”, but it’s impossible to shake the similarity. There’s also “Lazarus Rising”, which, from the title on down, recalls the gravitas of Nick Cave, though Miles can only achieve some Cave-lite dramatics that don’t quite go over.
Those songs stick out, though, because the rest of the album sounds so assuredly like Wymond Miles and no one else. The fury of emotion in these songs may not always come across as clearly as it could, but you can always feel it simmering underneath, and that goes a long way towards the success of Under the Pale Moon. It’s got its flaws, and lays a little too close to influences in spots—the title itself recalls Echo & the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon”, a band Miles clearly admires—but it’s also a promising debut because, when Miles gets away from those trapdoors of influence and closer to himself as a songwriter and musician, he can be captivating, he can indeed show us those ladders he found.