Music for the Soul of Your Brain
One of the more impossible things to write about is the album without lyrics. Without words, you don’t have very much that’s literal in meaning, and you’re dealing in primarily abstract territory. Writing about such music is, in a few words, a little like dancing about architecture. The thing with Brooklyn-based Blondes, a duo comprised of Zach Steinman and Sam Haar who are now offering up their second album Swisher, is that there’s not much dancing to be done—even by electronic music standards. Sure, the group is a little house-y, and they have something of a reliance on muted beats that brings the music into Orb-like territory. However, Swisher is not a record for your feet. It may not even be IDM, which would target your brain. No, Blondes are going for something a lot more ethereal. They may be targeting your very soul, or at least your feelings. Swisher is very much an instrumental mood piece—one that recalls cities of neon and glittering glass. It would be the sort of stuff that robots may even have a fetish for, if robots did indeed have feelings. Swisher is abound with levels of abstraction; listening to it is a little like watching someone peel an onion in reverse. There are layers of sound to be had here, and each song successively builds upon a foundation of reverb-y beats and simmering synth sounds.
What makes Swisher interesting is that it’s an album rooted in place, terra firma if you will, and the people who populate that place or places. So what you get are songs like “Bora Bora” (an island where Karen Carpenter spent her honeymoon and which she famously called “Boring Boring”—though it should be said that “Bora Bora” is one of the more interesting things on the disc) and “Poland” in all of its socialist techno-industrial sheen. And yet you also get songs like “Andrew” and “Elise”, in which the music is personalized. There are less proper nouns to be had, too—songs like “Clasp” and “Wire”, which serve as connective tissue running its course throughout the hour-plus length of Swisher. And the whole thing works as a unified whole, building on top of itself and then tearing itself down and becoming rather deconstructed. But the point of Swisher is to be as giddy as a rush of blood to your head. It’s an atmospheric landscape of nearly techno ambition that glides like a speed train running through the European countryside.
It’s interesting that the two best tracks on the entire record almost bookend the piece. “Bora Bora”, which is actually the second song following the eerie and almost interstitial “Aeon”, glitches and pops for nearly nine minutes, sounding remotely like Depeche Mode somewhere around Some Great Reward. It’s propulsive and distorted and may just be the song that most personifies the theme of the album title, ignoring for a moment that there’s actually a title track here. The drum pulses like a heartbeat while all sorts of garish keyboard effects take hold and immerse the listener in a sterile panorama of white noise. It’s hardly danceable, yet you might find yourself shuffling your feet to the sheer cadence of the dense sonics. Elsewhere, the seven-and-a-half minute “Elise”, which ends the record, is clearly the most pop-like moment to be had on Swisher, though it starts out with a pounding techno beat. But then the gorgeous keyboards kick in and shimmer and shine. It’s the one area of the record that feels like an honest-to-goodness song, with something approaching a standard verse-chorus-verse format to a degree, just maybe minus the chorus part. Still, the effect is hopeful and optimistic and ends things formally on the sweetest of notes.
If there’s any failing to the record, it’s that, at roughly 66 minutes long, it is a little, well, long, and some pruning could have been put into effect—particularly on opener “Aeon”, which, at even a relatively brief four minutes (brief by this album’s standards, at least), could have been cut into two and achieved roughly the same seething and staggering effect. Still, Swisher has enough here to captivate listener’s attention. I love the way, in particular, how “Poland” builds and builds, adding layer upon layer of synthesized sound, before giving way to a pulsating keyboard and hand claps. It’s the little moments such as this that elevate Swisher above its peers and lets it become, in a way, almost peerless. In fact, it’s moments such as “Andrew”, which rides a looped keyboard refrain throughout the bulk of its nine-and-a-half minutes without resorting to being tedious or “boring boring”, that really make you revel in the wonder and majesty of the LP as a whole.
The Urban Dictionary says that a “swisher” is a brand of cigar with the worst tobacco that you can smoke, but the Blondes version of Swisher is something far more appealing than that. It is a record that, while somewhat impossible to dance to, occupies memorable space in your mind and moves your heart to the rhythm of its BPMs. Demanding without sacrificing sound and pleasure, Swisher is that rarity of an electronic album. It’s something you can really sink your teeth into—and derive pleasure from its airy and light techno journey into the skull.
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// Notes from the Road
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