When Steven Malkmus mused about the voice of Geddy Lee in Pavement’s “Stereo”, his band was still under-dogging its way through a commercial rock landscape rife with singers whose mouths sounded full of marbles. That post-grunge moment was nearly 15 years ago, when beyond the likes of Coyne, Yorke, Lytle, and Linkous, few male pop/rock singers were gaining notice by courting Lee’s register. Malkmus’ laid-back but literate style was in another class altogether, wary of both earnestness and exertion, and all the more interesting for it.
Yet the march of modern rock through time and (increasingly virtual) space has seen the tide turn for guys who pitch their voices to the sky. Many of today’s most critically adored artists have seemingly reached that point by edging away from the virile roots of rock, sidelining decisive rhythms and ceding macho vocal delivery to acts with arena appeal but without much critical currency. This rise of falsetto is a dubious development. Separating the men from the boys, as it were, is largely a matter of being able to spot the point at which the voice blends dynamically with the music or lifts the whole piece into ether – light as air and little more than pretty.
At the most innocuous end of the spectrum is a singer like Justin Vernon, whose career thrives thanks to an increasingly smooth, soft sonic palette and the upper reaches of his range – a combination that makes recently debuted Coldplay songs sound edgy by comparison. Far more vibrant is the voice of Antlers’ Pete Silberman, who uses his technique in the service of palpable emotional qualities of despair (Hospice) or conflicted romance (Burst Apart). With an even better track record is Liars’ Angus Andrew, whose choice to send his singing voice upward creates consistently remarkable contrasts with his band’s unrelenting, gloomy brand of rock. On last year’s Sisterworld, the effect was like hearing a man haunted.
In discussing Nurses, I give all of this attention to the state of the voice, because squeaky, shrieky singing (courtesy of Aaron Chapman and John Bowers) remains the band’s most potentially divisive quality and one of its greatest assets. 2009’s Apple’s Acre was a more or less lo-fi affair – at times it could be mistaken for a demo for bigger pop pieces that would be filled out later. Yet two songs from that album (“Caterpillar Playground” and “What Then”) burrowed more deeply into my head than anything else that year, their economical production favouring and highlighting the band’s tremendous melodic qualities. The point of these songs is the joy of singing the tune, and their compositions at large exist to reflect the melody back onto itself, tunefulness begetting tunefulness.
The announcement that new album Dracula would benefit from studio polish created a concern that Nurses would lose their warm-blooded unruliness even as it had become the band’s most endearing trait. Yet Nurses return even stronger on Dracula, an album more sophisticated than Apple’s Acre but retaining that album’s sincerity and pop sensibilities. Dodging the hi-fi hazards that befell Yeasayer on Odd Blood, Nurses aren’t beholden to production shtick as much as they are determined to not let their rough edges be tamed. The band largely succeeds in the feat, because for every upgrade in rhythmic heft or sonic clarity, there are still more compellingly odd touches, mostly of the vocal sort.
Perhaps the most noticeable single shift from Apple’s Acre is the decisive step forward into what the accompanying press notes call “deep grooves, dubby basslines, and a focus on rhythm.” This direction links the album to not only the work that Liars have been up to for the last decade, but also Radiohead, whose own Liars-indebted The King of Limbs was received by the New York Times’ Jon Pareles as being defined by “rhythms, loops and noise.”
Make no mistake, though, Dracula has vastly more replay value than King of Limbs. “Fever Dreams”, the no-brainer of a first single, grows from the same rhythmic fount as Radiohead’s “There There,” but instead of using a series of plateaus to delay crescendo, “Fever Dreams” leaps around with unpredictable energy. Again, as in the best material from Apple’s Acre, the voice drives the song, even as the lyrics are mostly unintelligible.
Throughout Dracula, sung words take on several extra syllables and are sometimes stretched so far as to lose all context and literal meaning. But the silliness of the delivery is an excellent vehicle for the ecstasy the songs are there to communicate. This sunny disposition is the quality that most distinguishes Dracula from the Liars/Radiohead school of loop-based production (succinctly characterized as “the murk” by Jess Harvell in a 2007 Liars review). The enhanced focus on dance music (loosely defined) also suggests that Dracula is less an intellectual experience than it is an emotional and – for those inclined to move – physical one. In this context, comparisons to Animal Collective and MGMT are close, but still far from exact.
There is considerable variety within the songs of Dracula. Counterpointing the ecstatic “Fever Dreams” are more restrained, new-wavy tracks such as “Extra Fast” and “Gold Jordan”. The middle section of the album is particularly strong with songs that begin in deceptively simple fashion and then increase in complexity.
“So Sweet”, for instance, might be mistaken as fluff, but its shifting bass line portends that there’s something much more soulful on the way. The eventual hook of the song is revealed, along with the repeated line “I’m just trying to understand.” This repetition itself is varied, so that the band hits a deeply funky stride, and then punctuates it with a refrain that ranks with the compositional mastery of The Soft Bulletin. A mid-song break within “Trying to Reach You” chops, loops, and harmonizes the lead vocal in a way that renews the energy of the song and intensifies the impact of both rhythm and melody. That these kinds of surprises occur throughout the album and remain surprising on subsequent listens, testifies to Nurses’ inventiveness.
This is a band whose approach to songwriting can be practically defined as playing around in the studio and seeing what sticks. Yet with this keen an editorial sense, the results are consistently impressive. Dracula is the sort of successful experiment that comes along too infrequently in modern pop music.