One very commendable characteristic of Cloudland Canyon is its quest to change up the sound from one album to the next without giving up an underlying ethos. With the third album, the changeup perhaps comes from a shakeup in personnel. Founding member Kip Uhlhorn remains, but Simon Wojan (from King Khan and the Shrines) has left to be replaced by Uhlhorn’s partner, Kelly, and a bunch of guests. The group has also switched labels, from the likely Kranky to the less obvious Holy Mountain. Cloudland Canyon purveys a kind of aggressive ambient music. A background music that is never content to sit idly by just to provide atmosphere, it always breaks into the forefront. The first two albums, though different from one another, owe much to the innovations of Krautrock champions, like Faust and Cluster, in their combination of beautiful sounds and textures with startling song structures. The new album, Fin Eaves, is a departure in terms of sound, but it still manages to meld prettiness with noise.
Fin Eaves is comprised of nine tracks which, on first listen, are almost indistinguishable. The first song, “No One Else Around”, starts with a shimmering synth that washes away all the defining characteristics of each song into a noisy soup. But immediately the synth quiets down to give way to dreamy and incomprehensible vocals in an ocean of reverb. This reverb is carried on in a reprise in the second song, the title track, which echoes for a little under a minute. Even the next song, “Sister”, continues in a very similar vein, the only noticeable difference being that the bass has taken a front line in the song. The synth’s vibrato pairs with a low-end rhythm to bounce it up and down in what almost seems like a melody, though the vocals’ soaring vowels don’t take on any distinct character.
Only at the end of the third track does this continuity seem to take a break. The sound for once completely stops, and a bell marks a couple of beats before diving back into the wash with “Gracious Hearts”, a song based mostly on vocal sounds atop a repetitive bass note and the occasional synth laser sound. At this point, you begin to notice the percussion for the first time: a tambourine jangle that simultaneously marks the time and smoothes it out. Minimal drums work beneath this, but are mostly buried under the layers and layers of reverb (except on the late track, “Hope Sounds Dry”, where a heavier drum beat comes in to drive the song along).
Depending on how loud you play the album, you might have completely different reactions to it. At a low volume, you get mostly the rippling texture that wipes everything away. Though this might get boring, the album certainly works this way. But if you turn it up loud, you really begin to understand how noisy this album is, masked by the total wash. Rather than conjuring up soothing images of light on water, the dreaminess starts to gain a strange edge. It’s dream pop with the amps turned all the way up.
Another way to approach this album is as a response to the current trends in indie pop music, particularly in the wake of Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion. Cloudland Canyon has made an album of electro-haze, but has left out all the pop hooks and recognizable song structure. Like a desolate desert or eternal plain—or once again an expanse of ocean—there is nothing to grab on to. For some, this may be forbidding. There is no easy way to gain entrance to this record. It doesn’t give; it has a kind of sonic autism.
The high point of the album comes with the sixth song, “Pinklike/Version”, which raises in the listener’s mind an influence different than ‘70s Krautrock and ‘00s synth avant-pop. The hazy wash suddenly recalls Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. This song even has a chord progression and a nice little tambourine shake to mark every other measure in a truly Spectorian way. And once you let this reference come to the fore, you realize that the mumbly vocals and overarching reverb also owe a lot to the Jesus and Mary Chain. But what Cloudland Canyon does that’s new is to strip all of these poppy influences down to simple sounds, almost like a sampling of the essence of all these groups.
This is pop music without the pop. It ends up being a kind of noise that pushes you to the verge of recognition—and ends just there. As if, once you feel like you are in safe waters, the theme music from Jaws begins to play just to give you a sense of menace. Or, to try another analogy, as if you see the back of someone’s head on the street and think it’s your best friend, but when you catch up and make him turn around, he has no face at all. All of this to say that Cloudland Canyon does something interesting that is deceptively simple. This is a difficult album if you really listen—but you might also just throw it on in the background and let the dreaminess surround you and whisk you away to nowhere.