Carrying on in the tradition of famous shoegaze sound sculptors before him, guitarist-vocalist Lockett Pundt is pretty, pretty fond of reverb. Both on his solo work (recording under the moniker Lotus Plaza) and with his more famous main gig (the highly acclaimed indie-rock quartet Deerhunter), Pundt treats that ethereal sonic mist as an equally prominent instrument alongside his shimmering, arpeggiated six-strings and droning vocal lines. In fact, his first Lotus Plaza album, 2009’s The Floodlight Collective, was nearly more reverb than actual song—his repetitive, circular melodies disappearing in an emotionally flat fog. Perhaps he intentionally saves his finest, most immediately striking songs for Deerhunter; perhaps working with co-writer Bradford Cox simply gets his creative juices flowing. But for whatever reason, his contributions to Deerhunter’s wholly wonderful last two albums (2008’s Microcastle and 2010’s Halcyon Digest) are miles ahead of what he accomplished on his own—tracks like “Agoraphobia” and “Desire Lines” are equal parts psych-pop finesse and sublime guitar hypnosis: a synthesis he hasn’t managed to harness (or bothered to even explore) on his own.
With Spooky Action at a Distance, his sophomore effort as Lotus Plaza, Pundt seems, for a moment, to pick up directly where he left off on Halcyon Digest, blazing out of the gate (after an opening wash of synth ambience) with “Strangers”, a dreamy space-pop workout built on tangled, interlocking webs of electric guitar. Pundt still sings like a shy teenager on the wrong side of an unexpected hangover—his brittle, barely-there tenor hovering sheepishly above the glowing din. He may not be indie-rock’s most natural frontman (Cox, his bandmate, is an infinitely more fascinating singer), but when the melodies are sharp—as they are on this track—his slightly anonymous voice lends the songs an air of subtle mystery.
Though Spooky Action does find Pundt carrying over some of his more song-like sensibilities from Deerhunter, he’s still far more committed to reverb than hooks. At times, the wash of sound is majestic: The white-hot “White Galactic One” finds Pundt furiously bending his guitar strings into oblivion over a Velvet Underground-like motorik pulse. But when the intensity dies down, the results can be shapeless: The awkwardly out-of-tune “Dusty Rhodes” sounds like an atmospheric sketch in search of a chord progression, and the otherwise splendid “Jet out of the Tundra” is hard to make out behind its vacant wall of sound.
It’s hard not to wish Pundt would open up the production values on occasion. The most immediately satisfying songs here are ones that jolt more than soothe. Particularly effective is “Eveningness”, which cuts out the sonic clutter, giving his voice space to breathe over a cascading guitar loop and punchy chorus percussion. As a whole, Spooky Action feels like a mostly great demo: In many ways, we’ve heard all these songs before, in slightly tighter fashion, on the last two Deerhunter albums. Pundt may be sticking too close to his comfort zone, but there’s enough magic here to hold him over until the next Deerhunter album. In the meantime, what’s the status on that, anyway?