There is something disconcerting about the promise of “the first fully hi-fi Black Moth Super Rainbow record”. That statement appears in the press release for Eating Us, so it is a perceived selling point for the album. Yet it will probably cause suspicion among listeners who favor the band’s lo-fi approach. After all, Black Moth Super Rainbow has built and maintained quite a mystique by creating distressed, rough-around-the-edges psychedelic pop that more resembles “found sound” than many products that actually carry such a label. That tension between discovery and obfuscation has informed both the sound and image of the band, whose members have traditionally resisted providing any direct context for their music or identities. To look at available photographs of the band is to notice a mischievous dodge that, like the music, creates an appealing mystery by remaining at arm’s length. In that sense, Black Moth Super Rainbow has benefited from playing on the imagination of listeners to a degree all too uncommon in an overexposed era.
Fears raised by the band’s new direction are somewhat allayed by the choice of producer Dave Fridmann, who could be described as the man least likely to ruin a band’s sonic ambitions. Revered among audiophiles, producer/mixer/engineer Fridmann enjoys legendary status thanks to his work with his own band Mercury Rev, most memorably on 1998’s Deserter’s Songs, as well as efforts for Flaming Lips, Mogwai, Sparklehorse, Delgados, Sleater-Kinney, and Low. The aggressive and expansive sound Fridmann captures has brought out the best in all of these acts. Although some have questioned the discretion of his growing discography, the skill of Fridmann’s signature touch is rarely doubted. But recently, that touch has taken a turn for the sleek and/or the soft, and the present prettification of Black Moth Super Rainbow seems to be (in part) the result of Fridmann’s hand.
Eating Us is at times agreeable to the point of innocuity. The awry, rustic qualities of earlier Black Moth Super Rainbow albums were in keeping with the band’s woodsy charm, but those elements are largely gone. In their place are sonic strokes that are more accessible, and often impeccable, but comparatively uninteresting. 2003’s Falling Through a Field was not a very complex album, but its textures were consistently intriguing. The melancholic, broken melodies of songs like “Boxphones” and “The Magical Butterfly Net” channeled both Boards of Canada and early Sparklehorse. It would be a stretch to identify such kinships in the new material. Rather, recent Fridmann-helmed Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev efforts such as Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and The Secret Migration seem to more directly influence the production style here. First track “Born on a Day the Sun Didn’t Rise” carries over the pep from 2007’s Dandelion Gum, but the rhythm is significantly enhanced by the addition of a human drummer. It should be noted that Black Moth Super Rainbow is a killer live act, and one positive development of Eating Us is how the band (with Fridmann) injects this album with the energy of its performances. To be geekily specific, the opening number’s kick drum recording alone should be familiar and pleasing to both Fridmann fans and anyone who has enjoyed the band’s live show.
Keyboards and vocodered vocals remain in the band’s bag of tricks, but they lose some uniqueness in the transition to a hi-fi framework. “Twin of Myself” has a cloying lead vocal that never connects with the enjoyable, if repetitive, bass groove. “Tooth Decay” is a crowded disco piece that ultimately goes nowhere. More successful is “Gold Splatter”, which combines acoustic guitar, resonant drums and a more sustained lead vocal. Yet a string arrangement that replaces the sung melody halfway through is a more refined version of the symphonic outro to “Dandelion Graves” from Falling Through a Field. Whereas the strings here just continue the song’s middle-of-the-road pleasantness, the arrangement in “Dandelion Graves” played like a tape loop that could never find its proper speed and therefore had more character. The bulked-up, hi-fi approach does work well on “Fields Are Breathing”, which features “Sex Born Poison”-style singing and inventive drumming. Another interesting moment is when an ascending, distorted synth noise intrudes on the final minute of “Iron Lemonade”. The high points of the album occur on songs still loose enough to allow some surprises into the mix, regardless of how the overall sound of the band has matured.
Whenever a band so forcefully moves away from its own hallmarks, there are complications of reception. Hardcore fans feel betrayed, newcomers don’t ‘get’ the back catalogue, and the tyranny of partiality sometimes muffles any substantial evaluative discussion. Black Moth Super Rainbow is certainly at a more grown-up point in its career. While there is nothing inherently wrong with a mainstream bid, there are consequences to the compromises such a move demands. Eating Us trims the fringe impulses of Black Moth Super Rainbow, but it does so (via Fridmann) with a good degree of credibility. The album should draw some new fans into the fold, but it might alienate some old followers in the process. The good news is that band members Tobacco and Power Pill Fist released solo albums last year, both of which proudly kept the weird times rolling. Setting aside for a moment a verdict on the “new” Black Moth Super Rainbow, it is great to see the band create additional works that cater to the many tastes of its diverse fan base.