Apparently all of Blank Dogs’ prodigious output has been leading to this one point: Land and Fixed, a 12-song LP put out by Captured Tracks, the label started up by Mike Sniper, who is also the man behind the band. And this claim isn’t really false. Land and Fixed takes what’s good about earlier Blank Dogs releases and makes it a little better. It’s not vastly different from 2009’s Under and Under, but it is more solid. If you don’t know what that means, here’s what you might be missing: Blank Dogs brings you ‘80s drenched synth and/or jangle pop with weird warbly vocals. Sounds trendy—and it is—but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good.
What makes Blank Dogs better than a lot of other ‘80s pop revival acts is this minimalist approach. Sniper got his start with punk band, D.C. Snipers, and he seems not to have completely given up the punk sensibility, even if he caved in to that secret devotion commonly held by punks to the more melodramatic sounds of the decade that came after punk’s beginning. In other words, Sniper may have been a closet New Romantic when he was a punk, but now he sounds like a closet punk making New New Romantic music. Take one of the best tracks on the album, “Blurred Tonight”: its anxiously poppy single note melody sounds like a Cure song without all the melodrama. Sniper has a deadpan delivery that, although surrounded by all those Gothic mournful trappings, makes the music seem more mature (less teenage) than the ‘80s synth-pop from which it derives. His heart might be bleeding out; he just doesn’t care.
Land and Fixed has one very peculiar trait into today’s world of bedroom projects: it actually contains more than ten tracks. With Blank Dogs’ constant stream of releases, in fact, the problem was actually cutting down songs to get to the 12 that actually end up making the album. This speaks to Sniper’s work at conceiving a cohesive album—and with that vision an excuse can be made for some lagging moments. Every album needs places for your mind to rest after the too-good buzz of the standout tracks. The album only runs at about 40 minutes, which isn’t too long. But after awhile, Sniper’s seasick, British-inflected vocals can start to wear thin on your nerves.
That said, the album contains some killer songs. Blank Dogs are minimalist, but they also have a vast pop sensibility. Sniper forgoes the lush and extravagant means often used to express an over the top vision. Instead, all of these catchy hooks and all of the typical space that would go into a carefully orchestrated pop song get crammed into a tight and distorted box. You have to admire this scaling-down. However, what initially sounds small can lusciously expand. Putting on headphones really unlocks the pleasure of the snugly wrapped music. Apparently, the album was mixed on the subway: special for Brooklyn’s youth with permanent earbuds and so much commuting to do. The tight interwoven layers of guitar, synth, bass, vocals are carefully orchestrated.
Blank Dogs stick to that old line about how they were only lo-fi due to limited means. Land and Fixed is apparently the true vision Sniper was working towards because now they are “more of a band” and he has better equipment. But he hasn’t totally ditched the muddy formula that worked. This is most evident in the vocals, which are still warbly and double-tracked. Sniper doesn’t have a strong voice, though he has a keen melodic sensibility. It’s this kind of voice that is served well by lo fidelity. So Sniper doesn’t let his voice lose its warble while the other instruments get cleaned up. Right away, on the chugging opener, “Goes By”, you get the taste of Sniper’s multi-tracked vocals, which sound like he’s drowning, burbling up to the surface. This is the joyous music of a dying man.
Still, Blank Dogs don’t produce overly complex tracks: these aren’t pocket symphonies, nor are they genius compositions in the vein of Eno. Sniper is like an Eno savant. There is a toylike quality to these songs that fits that hipster search for innocence. Sniper really channels Eno on “Out the Door”, where the melody could have come off Taking Tiger Mountain. But the reference mostly comes from his tone and his phrasing, not in the complexity of the songs. While Blank Dogs have quirk, the songs don’t every do anything unexpected. That’s not to say that the different parts to the song aren’t good: there is always a nice musical interlude—but it’s usually a quarter note phrased variation on the melody (very Cure sounding), not some astounding piece of songwriting brilliance.
The best track comes a little past the midway mark on the album with “Another Language.” At first you can’t make sense of it. After the sugary pop of “Blurred Tonight,” it sneaks up on you. But when it comes, the chorus really blows your top: a strange group vocal chants, “I’ve been waiting for another language” like all the monsters from Labyrinth. The song eases itself into your head, like a bather into the water. But this ease doesn’t mean you won’t end up drowning in its insistence.
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// Notes from the Road
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