(Chill) Waved Out
Atlanta’s Ernest Greene, who records and performs under the moniker Washed Out, has been riding a boatload of hype in the indie rock sphere. He has most notably provided the indie-friendly TV show Portlandia with a theme song in the form of his “Feel It All Around” and, with the release of his first full-length album, Within and Without, it seems that everyone has something to say about the record. Some people seem to either really like it, or really dislike it in equal measure – making it hard to get a cultural reading on the album. On the second front, the record has even attracted the negative attention of outspoken DJ and producer Diplo recently, as he tweeted “Washed [O]ut need to put some starch in the wash cause this album sounds kinda limp.”
Ignoring that for a moment, it would seem that there is some level of genuine excitement about the disc partially because it has been made out to be something of a Second Coming for the very loose musical genre known as “chillwave”, which is a lo-fi tag that gets banded about whenever someone puts out an album, usually recorded in a bedroom, that has layers and layers of lush ’80s style keyboards. Well, it might be debatable if Within and Without actually meets that genre tag, because Greene has roped in a fairly big name indie-rock producer, Ben Allen, to helm the boards behind the record – Allen most notably has worked on such laded discs as Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest and Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere. Therefore, Within and Without is a pretty lush and orchestrated album, and, while it might sound somewhat evocative of trippy ‘80s synth pop crossed with a hint of trip-hop, it paradoxically seems otherworldly and existing in its own place in the musical stratosphere.
Don’t let the cover art of a man and woman making out naked from the waist up deceive you at all: Within and Without is really more a soundtrack to foreplay than its up front imagery would lead you to believe. It bounces along in a soft trance-like rhythm at times, and is remarkably gentle without really resorting to much in the way of pure balladry. While it’s hard to say if there’s any real club-baiting anthems to be found on the album, it does percolate at a steady gallop and is wistfully nostalgic for keyboard drenched bands of some 30 years gone, without actually referencing a particular band or style, unlike the recent the Chain Gang of 1974’s Wayward Fire, which was essentially an open love letter to all things New Order and Depeche Mode. That makes Within and Without a bit of a remarkable album: it sounds both new and retro in the same breath as its keyboard laden sound is less icy and cold insomuch as most music from the ‘80s sounded, and much more warm and earth-toned hued. In many ways, Within and Without could be tracked against a sepia-toned black-and-white film and remain incredibly tactile. There are astonishing hues of sound: soft squeaky violins that bubble under the surface of “Far Away”, the slice-and-diced female vocals that provide a backbeat to “Before”, and what appear to be a tambourine and a shaker buried underneath the processed drum machines of “Echoes”.
However, a trajectory must be traced back to Diplo’s aforementioned tweet. While I wouldn’t go so far to call the music “limp”, the album as a whole does seem to run together a bit and maintains an overtly consistent sonic approach – making the whole affair a little, if you’ll pardon the very bad pun, washed out. Within and Without seems to really work best if taken in partial doses, instead of a cohesive wall-to-wall artistic statement: individual tracks could be careful considered for a mix CD, and you would be probably adequately sated with just those one or two tracks parceled out at a particular time. This is particularly true when you consider that Greene’s vocals are fuzzy and indistinct, making them an instrument in and of itself, and because they’re so indiscernible, there isn’t a particular feeling or message that you can take away from the album. Plus, it says something when the most noteworthy track comes at the very end of the outing: “A Dedication” is unlike anything that has preceded it, being a stark piano ballad without a great deal of instrumentation to adorn it. Being hissy and lo-fi, when everything that came before is so bright and polished, it becomes something of a stand-out. Being an almost counterpoint to Radiohead’s recent “Codex”, the track is simply memorable for being an island surrounded by a sea of heart-thumping retro-anthems.
Within and Without isn’t all that bad of an affair, but it could have used a bit more variation in its reverb-heavy sound. If the disc is to be remotely considered to be “chillwave” at all, it comes with the caveat that there aren’t really any prerequisite chills that would run down your back when presented with this collective of nine songs. A glitchy mood is established to be sure, and there is stuff here that is agreeable in way that will get the listener’s head-nodding. What Within and Without really lacks are tracks that would be hit-worthy, which is an odd assessment when you consider that Greene’s previous output had been relegated to singles and EPs. That leads to the assumption that Within and Without is a litmus test: a means for the artist to really get a feel for the freedom associated with a full-length release. There are things to be enjoyed on Within and Without in tiny, incremental measures, and while some may be left wanting by the lack of variation to be found within these locked grooves, there’s enough moments of incandescent beauty on the record that obviously will get fans of indie pop talking – for good or nil.
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