Single-artist compilation albums are always dangerous territory. It is in musicians’ nature to change, and compilations sometimes have trouble reflecting that change in a cohesive way. No artist’s catalog is pristine, either, and even the most hit-centric collection has its share of clunkers.
Dead Gaze, a full-length comprised of previously-released tracks from songwriter Cole Furlow’s Dead Gaze moniker, suffers from the ailment that very occasionally befalls the Beatles’ most psychedelic material, in that effects and atmosphere end up overwhelming the actual songwriting hidden somewhere beneath them. Unfortunately for Furlow, he doesn’t happen to be a Beatle (not even Ringo), and this malady appears dotted liberally across the record. Furlow’s songwriting buckles under the weight of its accoutrements, and the fairly basic pop structures struggle to support the sheer amount of stuff that gets piled on top of them. Background noises, vocal effects, screwed talking, auxiliary instrumentation and what sounds like an army of gimmicky pedals all pop up in shifts, sometimes several of these layered all at once.
Underneath the previously mentioned “stuff” is an uncomplicated framework of bratty garage rock, beach pop, and, most surprisingly, more than a little ‘90s pop-punk angst. That last one is a major component of what doesn’t work about this record. The raw, confessional nature of that style of music demands a certain lack of adornment, without which its intrinsic self-indulgence becomes overwhelming.
While it begins breezily enough, “What Brought Us Here” is immediately weighed down by the introduction of its clunky lead vocal, which is further exacerbated by a chorus with lyrics like, “It’s good to hold on tight to the love that brought us here.” The snotty shitgaze-Blink-182 vocal of “You’ll Carry on Real Nice” buries a perfectly fine instrumental impression of Neutral Milk Hotel’s faster material (think “Holland 1945” or “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 3”) and it’s only at the end, when the vocal devolves into a Mangum-style yowling repetition of the song’s title, when it builds up any sort of energy. The simpler structures suffer the most, and gooey, barely-baked lyrics like “Stick to your guns and shoot at free will” threaten to derail a song like “Glory Days for Sure” almost entirely.
Complaints aside, the record’s hazy pop-punk and indie rock is music that, in certain situations, would sound absolutely perfect. Throw Dead Gaze on in the middle of a lazy, lost summer afternoon with friends, and its imperfections would melt into the rhythm of laughter and conversation, especially in the haze of daydrinking and casual substance use that the songs’ atmospheres often conjure.
What’s worse is that some of these songs really work. “This Big World”, with its large, colorful riffs, immediate vocals (and a Goldilocks amount of effects and processing on them) and pounding simplicity, is the standout pop track here, and offers an example of what a properly edited Dead Gaze might sound like. Despite some unnecessary filigree in the form of synths and vocal effects, the unhurried, jangly cool of Real Estate-esque “Fishing with Robert” sounds pleasantly familiar, even on first listen.
Is Dead Gaze by any means bad? Far from it. I might even, under the right circumstances, slip some of these songs on a mixtape. However, Dead Gaze as a whole obscures that fact, and its structure makes repeat listens to the album as anything but background music painstaking. The compilation nature of this LP makes it sound like a set of songs that has been allowed to gestate too long and the bloated, overripe package it presents reflects that.