Dan Deacon doesn’t exactly look the part of Rock Messiah. Poised behind a tangle of cables and electronic components—a motley assortment of vocoders, synthezisers, noise generators, effects pedals—Deacon is a bit paunchy, balding, clad in t-shirt adorned with an enormous cartoon character, and busy taping his over-sized glasses onto his head as a precaution against their inadvertent loss. His credentials, at odds with both that appearance and his present role, include classical training and an electroaccoustic masters degree from SUNY Purchase. His music itself, a seething mass of beeps, pops, and heavily processed tirades against bees that won’t leave him alone, does not, at face value, suggest itself for mass appeal. And yet, this is the Man Who Convinced the Rock Kids to Dance.
How hard is that really? If you have to ask, you likely haven’t been attending a lot of shows lately. Things are so far gone that even the Rapture, early purveyors of the rock dalliance that came to be known as dance punk, can be heard throwing up their arms in apparent exasperation on their latest effort (“people don’t dance no more / they just stand there like this”), summoning familiar visions of rank upon rank of arm-crossed, foot-planted concert-goers. And really, if the Rapture can’t get their audiences moving, what possible hope can there be for the rest of us? Miraculously, through the last two years of near-constant touring, Dan Deacon has managed to pull off the feat again and again, luring in his audiences (many of whom came out to see actual rock outfits like the Black Lips) with his strange, raucous brand of electro-pop and inducing them to sway, leap, and even shout along with him.
Live, Deacon’s music is an insatiable tidal wave of clipping keyboard loops and crazed-carnival-barker-on-digital-helium vocal hooks; in the studio both the subtleties and the mechanisms for its jittery energy come into greater focus. What were once tonal washes of chords break up into Philip Glass-like arpeggio sequences and droning flutters of guitar, overlayed with squealing organ and squirming bass. The simple, insistent drum loops resolve and the garbled voices approach intelligibility. The undercurrent of noise imbuing his tracks with their raging urgency separates into an experimental noise spectrum of slurps and bleeps. What comes over especially is Deacon’s skill in gradually building layer upon layer into his chord progressions until they seem to surge forward under their own volition. But in the end, all the contributions of classical mechanisms and wobbling feedback riffs give way to effectively catchy and hummable, albeit very odd, pop songs.
“Trippy Green Skull”, which seems to suggest itself as a single, opens with the album’s most piercing analog beep loop and low chanting, only to lurch into gear with a shrieking punk riff of a treble synth and crunchy breakbeats. Later, the track crystallizes around more consistent drums and synth hook with Deacon’s highly processed voice into an elemental dance party. “Snake Mistakes” backs its refrain, throwaway yet instantly catchy, with a sinuous bassline that seems to emulate fretless finger-work with sliding pitch-bending and tucks in a vocoded bridge section that would do Wendy Carlos’ soundtrack for a Clockwork Orange proud. On the other hand, perhaps ill-chosen opener “Woody Woodpecker” strains nerves with several repitched loops of the titular cartoon character’s laughter (though simultaneously impressing as it manages to use them as melodic basis for a piece) and the one quieter piece, which presumably falls closer to Deacon’s background, lacks the compelling momentum and energy of the electro-pop songs. Fortunately, the gap is bridged easily by the blazing insistence of the instrumental “Pink Batman” and by the 12-minute, minimal-xylophone-to-electric-shimmer-to-new-wave-sing-along-to-squelch-solo ascent of “Wham City” an apparent tribute to Deacon’s home at the eponymous Baltimore art collective. These songs may seem a little less epoch-making outside the religious fervor of one of Deacon’s warehouse shows, but still stand alone as unique pop experiments that manage to challenge without being challenging.
And so, somehow, the rock kids come out to dance, on a scale that I’ve only seen recently reproduced in that most instantly appreciable of pop experiments, the Girl Talk set. Like Girl Talk’s Greg Gillis, an otherwise unassuming biomedical engineer from Pittsburgh, Dan Deacon would never be picked out of a police line-up as pop star material. But complain as they might, the afore-mentioned Rapture seems to be missing the point: those same notoriously poised and unimpressed Brooklyn audiences who apparently spurn their beats (and Baltimore audiences, and anywhere audiences), are willing to drop all pretense for a Deacon set, pumping arms, yelling absurd phrases about “cool dads” and “shark swords”, and generally having a great time. And that’s ultimately the point: Spiderman of the Rings and Deacon himself are able to provide something no amount of refined style can cover for: pure, raw fun.
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