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Big Deal

Lights Out

(Mute; US: 24 Jan 2012; UK: 23 Jan 2012)

Big Deal’s biography reads like a checklist procured from a sad-faced hipster scavenger hunt: boy from strict religious family studies rock music in secret and escapes to England, meeting ‘independent and insightful chanteuse’ and they bond over Sonic Youth and Big Star. Reading the entire biography, which is filled with so much more of the same, it seems a little too convenient that they manage to just deftly hit all of these indie-cred pleasure points, and what is presented as the new sweethearts of alt-mainstream comes off more like some kind of Monkees for when the horn-rim glasses, retro mustaches, ‘ironic’ tattoos and snarky t-shirts crowd is all cloudy-face. And of course, the overt sexual tension that they dance around in reality while playing up in their actual songs only makes the hipster heart grow that much fonder.  Buy the record, lonely boys; the singer looks just like that girl at Starbucks you’re crushing on with her downcast gaze, and the guy in the group is a stand-in for you. And they call themselves Big Deal because, like, get it? Nudge, wink.


The most incredible thing about the album is how vastly unexceptional it is. The short of it is that every single song with the un-notable exception of the last two sounds like every other song. Same basic tempo, same subject matter, same orchestration, same lack of true counterpoint in the vocals, same lack of variation in key, same chord progressions (with the inimitable add9 chord, of course), same everything. Calling it tedious would itself be tedious. Some may suggest that the strength of this group lies in how they join their voices together, despite the fact that they don’t really ‘harmonize’ so much as produce a monophonic texture. To say that the duo has chemistry is a bit of a misnomer, as neither of them portray any character. If you want to extend the metaphor of chemistry, then you could say they mix very well, like two cups of lukewarm water will effortlessly combine but still be boring as hell.


There is a complete lack of emoting in the actual vocal performance of these songs.  Every word in every song is half-heartedly mumbled, meaning the wounds are not even deep enough to make the singers want to enunciate properly. The hushed, just-swallowed-a-bottle-of-Ambien tone that they use throughout does not in and of itself convey emotion so much as imply a mathematical equation: soft murmuring equals sad. Unfortunately, this is a completely fictional equation that has been hammered into our heads for the past several years by like-minded singers who have steadily romanticized ennui. How exactly a cold, dispassionate, even robotic in its inexpressiveness voice can be considered the absolute epitome of a forlorn demeanor is a mystery best left to future generations. But it does say something about the generation of fans who will undoubtedly love Big Deal, and how disconnected from their own hearts they actually are. Maybe that’s the real reason your relationship didn’t work; neither of you are actually able to feel anything. And that seems to be the fatal flaw here. Music being written, presented, and marketed as “unflinchingly honest, powerful in its intimacy and quivering with the intensity of a first crush” is actually just the opposite.


One of the adjectives that gets bandied about frequently when discussing singer-songwriter music is “raw”.  That word conjures up ideas of intensity, passion, and violence. Picture someone like John Lennon or Sam Cooke or Joni Mitchell. Someone whose emotional intent is clear purely through their voice without even listening to the words. Hell, even someone like James Taylor is a better example here. None of that heart-wrenching delivery is present anywhere on the album. The indifference in the vocals is the exact opposite of raw. When all you do with your voice is change pitch—ignoring vibrato, coloratura, and even screaming, all of the things that make a singer interesting and endearing—the effect is basically the singing equivalent of speaking in a monotone. It is dead-behind-the-eyes singing, and quite frankly it is highly unnerving. Listening to the album I imagined Mute label-mate Nick Cave bursting into their practice space and dismembering them while they just quietly sigh.


The result is that, rather than being anything close to raw it is incredibly clean and tasteless in its palatability. Even the grungey guitars still manage to sound complimentarily clean, as they have undoubtedly been processed to shave off all of the edge and bite that might actually move something within the listener. The indie pretense of lo-fi as a mark of authenticity is a square peg being hammered into a round hole more and more every day, which brings us to another completely false equation: distorted guitar plus acoustic guitar equals lo-fi. This equation can probably be traced back to Sebadoh’s first few records, where the key difference was that Lou Barlow was recording with a cheap four-track instead of a professional studio. So any attempts at passing this off as lo-fi are completely ridiculous. Go listen to the first Redd Kross album if you want to know what that really sounds like.


Which brings us to the lyrics. As was already pointed out, every song is about the same thing, that being the gap between some faceless humanoid and another faceless humanoid, one or both of whom may be leaving or may be staying. Pepper with the bare minimum of poetic device such as cliche metaphors about love being like fire (never heard that before), sadness being like darkness (never heard that before) and you have an extraordinary portrait of 21st century heartbreak and all of its emptiness and disassociation from actual heartbreak. So much of these songs exemplify juvenile and selfish outpourings; the lover that is being alternately lamented and heralded is not a fleshed out person so much as a living receptacle for the singer’s own emotional needs. It could be argued that the two singers are singing to each other, but the fact that 95% of the time they are singing the same thing makes that argument a little hollow, as it would be too convenient that they have the exact same thoughts and feelings and yet cannot repair their relationship. That these songs can sound ridiculously sophomoric is slightly excusable since one of the duo is still a teenager. What is unbelievable are the lyrical implications of sex throughout; with the aforementioned lack of passion in bringing these sentiments to light, the duo comes across so stony and deadpan that in my mind they are not unlike a Barbie and Ken doll in their plastic corporeal ideal-fulfillment while, like the dolls, having no genitals with which to actually take advantage of their consummate forms. So any notions of some kind of sexual frustration/expression here are preposterous; at most all that is going on under the covers is some chaste hand-holding. Anything else requires a level of ardor that they have not at all demonstrated through their songs. 


The songs, as already mentioned, have no distinctive features up until the last two. “Seraphine” is surprisingly tolerable in its ability to temper some light droning keyboards with their other sparse elements. However, it should be noted that after ten straight songs of the same damn thing, anything new at all is going to sound tremendous. Unfortunately, the final song, “Pi” takes it too far by having the droney-ness completely overpower the rest of the song and actually produce something even worse than the rest of the album.


The duo, through their words, harmonies, musicianship, instrumentation, compositions, tempos, dynamics, all of the things that make up songs, seem to be subscribing to the ethos of less is more, simplicity is complexity. But that is not and never has been true. Less is less, simplicity is simplicity. There are no real levels in this music. It’s not a seven-layer dip, it’s a bowl of gruel. And the hipster kids, desperate to attach themselves to some paragon of naively ineffable love with glazed over eyes are going to lap this up and ask for more.


So overall, the premise of the album is wrapped up entirely in the pains of being young, white, and beautiful. Woe is thems who look like Hilfiger models and can land a record deal from combining middle-school diary entries with a beginner’s instructional book for rhythm guitar. Due to, among other things, the emotional disconnect evident in the delivery of the material, this doesn’t elicit any sympathy. It elicits an eye roll and gagging gesture. If the group themselves can’t even be bothered to display some kind of emotional response to their own plight, why on Earth would the audience care? It all smacks of the kind of annoying people who want to have bad things happen to them just so they can wallow in the pity of others. It isn’t the actual heartbreak that breaks their hearts, it’s the fact that no one will listen to their sob story. Well, Big Deal just tricked you into letting them cry in your ear, although luckily the tears evaporated before they even hit your skin.


So how will you know if you want to buy this album? Here’s how to figure it out; go to the nearest college town. Doesn’t matter where in America you are, just go there. Find a cafe with an open mic night within a few blocks of the school. Wait until the boy/girl lovers/siblings/just-friends duo get up and play their little song. Did you enjoy that? Yes? Go buy the album. For everyone else, try to see through this contrived, sterile garbage.

Rating:

Liam McManus is a writer, duh. His favorite food is mustard and he hasn't had the hiccups in many years. His turn-ons include long walks on the beach at sunset and dinner by candlelight. His turn-offs include smoking and guys who are too full of themselves. He is currently working on a biography of Danielle Steel, tentatively titled 'Be Steel, My Beating Heart'.


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Big Deal - Chair
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As the title suggests, this is a perfect summery album that combines the wet feel of unpredictable English weather with the airy, breezy feel of something born out of California.
2 Feb 2012
Bad name, good band, big deal.
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