“You’ve been silent too long / Oh, we long to hear some truth.”
David Baker was a founding member of Buffalo rock band Mercury Rev. His departure, whether amicable or acrimonious, was a textbook example of someone taking a sound with them. For Mercury Rev’s first two albums, Yerself Is Steam and Boces, they dove headfirst into a spazzed-out brand of pop music for the dawn of the ‘90s; part navel-gazing mystique, part deafening guitar squalls, and an unrefined vocal presentation all came wrapped together in the Beefheart package from hell that probably frightened even the most dyed-in-wool Seattle scenester (and just how noisy do you have to be before you’re kicked off the mainstage in Lolapalooza ‘93?). “Chasing a Bee” and “Carwash Hair” were the notable songs then and that certainly tells you something. When Baker left, that all changed. Mercury Rev’s more “normal” aspects began to float to the surface, becoming more Radiohead than My Bloody Valentine. Baker took his weirdness and set up shop in Chicago. He released just one album in 1994 under the name Shady. Since then he’s been a studio hired hand for various bands in the windy city. Apart from production credits, we have not heard anything from Baker until now. Teaming up with fellow electronics enthusiast Will MacLean, Baker is now operating under the moniker Variety Lights. Their first album Central Flow is every bit as baffling as his overall career.
Variety Lights is an electronic affair, so it’s surprising that it’s so sloppy. This has to be an intentional move since no one makes a living inside of recording studios while letting a fourth-best take make it to the mixing desk. The songs are largely made up of conglomerated analog synth parts, some melodic (“Establishment” and “Silent Too Long”) and some downright crazy in their own subtle ways (“Sea Faraway”). As far as this ear can tell, there is no quantizing of rhythm. Simple keyboard vamps that let the speed of their pulse go astray now and then are not corrected. Baker’s low-register singing voice doesn’t take any great effort to stay in tune, be it on its own or overdubbed with an equally awkward falsetto.
Central Flow gives the impression that it is operating like any other pop album; an average number of songs, an average length, some lyrics, it all must be linear somehow. But this is an odd album because it wants you to squirm. “Starlit”, the opener, is less a song than an excuse to try out a bunch of equipment. The sounds bounce against one another instead of complimenting one another, and the lyrics are anyone’s guess. “Crystal Cove” proves again that, in the throes of deconstructing a “song”, Baker and MacLean would rather ooze out sounds that are at war with one another than establish a connection with the listener.
Central Flow has its more accessible moments but they still don’t feel very approachable. The single “Silent Too Long”, while still catchy in its own twisted way, is at the mercy of Baker’s sarcastic vocal delivery, suggesting he may not buy into his own myth of being a pop music Salinger. “Empathy”, “burden of proof”, “faces in the crowd”...it all sounds so deadpan. “Establishment” is another skewed bid for melody, a song that barely hangs together with precarious keyboard arrangements, no percussion, warbled vocals and a disaffected tale of singing delirious songs and jumping into a pool.
When Central Flow shoots in the opposite direction, the results are similarly disorienting. Sequencing the end of the album with one aesthetically clouded song with synthesizers set to “indulge” (“Feeling All Alone”) followed by an undirected search for an idea in an ungainly mix (“Infinity Room”) must be part of the album’s overall uncompromising nature.
That’s the dilemma with Variety Lights’ Central Flow. On the one hand, there’s nothing like it. But on the other hand, there’s nothing like it. Its unwillingness to adapt could prove to be its boon or its bane. Adapt to what, though? The current electronic avant-garde? Old Mercury Rev fans who bailed out after Boces? Guys who like to spend their lunch breaks looking at Moogs on eBay? All of these people will have hurdles to overcome when listening to Central Flow. It’s just a difficult album and Baker’s refusal to refine anything only adds to the difficulty.