It is well known that the guitar is both the playboy and the drama queen of the rock world: it screams, wails, and weeps. Dianogah’s original schtick was to eliminate this kind of histrionics in favor of a double bass, tuned-down role. Other bands like Silo had also adopted this setup (actually, Silo might have only had one bass), but they were angrier, louder, more upfront about it. Dianogah, with their flowing lines and meandering song structures, were always already postrock.
The bass, compared to the guitar, is the steady but slightly boring timekeeper. The bass is probably the most mathematical of the rock trio: it must keep time with the drums and also keep harmony with the guitar. For this reason, good bass players are often raging geeks: witness the hilarious Kids in the Hall sketch “Nobody Likes the Bass Player”.
On the other hand, let’s not forget that Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon is a bass player; like many previously uncool things (poverty, thick glasses, the Seventies) the bass experienced a kind of renaissance in the Nineties. Suddenly all those geek boys who couldn’t talk to girls and who spent their time memorizing obscure band stats became hipsters, their silence and sarcasm a thrilling challenge to their female counterparts (many of whom started playing the bass themselves). This army of emotional cripples, at least in my experience, has formed the core of Dianogah’s fan base. There’s nothing human in the music to frighten them—few vocals, no guitar, and song titles that are both smart-ass and oblique.
What does all of this mean? It means that in their uncomfortableness with the guitar’s emotionality, and their mathematical penchant, Dianogah have, for the last five-odd years and two albums, been the standard bearer for a certain kind of geek rock which, thanks to their time and place, has lost its geekiness.
It means that at its best, their music is innovative, intriguing, intelligent and unusual. It also means that at its worst, their music is emotionally distant, boring, and too smart for its own good.
Readers will have to make their choice about which side of the coin usually turns up for them; however I can say that this record represents a welcome loosening of the occasionally restrictive Dianogah formula. I must admit that although I’ve never hated a Dianogah record, I’ve also never really felt moved by one. Millions of Brazilians comes closer to my heart than any so far. It’s a good sign, say I. Freshfaced smartmouths of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your wallet chains!
This “greening” of Dianogah may partly result from the fact that, like everyone else, they’re aging; the smart aleck role does not play all that well past thirty. However, in the most concrete sense, on this album it means the addition of several new instruments and a change of engineers. For the past two albums, career smartass Steve Albini manned the board with his hard-nosed, sparse aesthetic. He put the drums up front and let the bass roll low. Now, with Tortoise’s John McEntire as engineer, the sound is both subtler and more intricate. In fact, instead of “engineered,” the liner notes say that McEntire “embiggened” the album—and indeed, there’s something nobler, more expansive about this album in comparison with previous efforts. (The Simpsons buffs will recall that this neologism comes from the town’s founder, Jeremiah Springfield: “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man”)
But the real addition is Rachel Grimes (of Rachels) on piano and Hammond organ. Her light touch—mostly just a chord wash here and there—adds both depth and color to the monochrome bass and drum formula. It does not take much, and old fans will not find their heroes converted. Grimes’ playing fits in perfectly with the Dianogah aesthetic, and what’s more, it expands and improves upon it. McEntire adds some synth and “additional percussion,” and John Upchurch of the Cocktails plays the bass clarinet.
As fans already know, Dianogah song titles usually have no discernible connection to the song itself—especially when, as on this album, there are no vocals. The album’s first track, “Wrapping the Lamb, Sir”, opens with a rather standard Dianogah bass refrain played fast and low. Song structure for Dianogah often loosely follows jazz structure: a central theme, variations and departures, and then a return to the theme for the end. “Wrapping the Lamb, Sir” (God, do I have to keep writing that with a proverbial straight face??!) follows this structure (though not all songs on this album do), but the difference is the organ. By the second bar of the refrain, it comes in with underlying chords which help build the tension as the drums build. The organ’s range is middle high but still very full, and when it drops out to let the refrain repeat and then deviate, the contrast is both pleasing and surprising.
That’s just the beginning, however. Track number four, the less alarmingly titled “American Dipper”, is beautiful and vulnerable and rangey and shy. It starts with bass harmonics and then the full strum bass comes in, slow, with drums. It’s all electric thrum and roll and tap, headed down the scale, until the scene is lit, so to speak, by tiny flashes of piano lighting. Pause for a bass bridge both melodic and moody. The drum starts to really roll, and the piano takes over the melody by playing a discreet harmony against its insistent refrain. Then it fades back again into bass, fades even more into just an organ chord, one you never quite noticed in the outro, holding its reedy breath until it all goes quiet.
“Piñata Oblongata” uses a synth space line against a fast, rumbling bass refrain that again, adds a touch of much needed contrast without doing anything radical to the signature Dianogah sound. The drums are also fantastic on this track, mixed high but not too much, cracking and tapping and falling silent in all the right places. But the album’s real winner, and real departure, is the next track, “Goto Dengo Loses the War”. Who’d have thought all it took was some sleigh bells and a bass clarinet? Something amazing happens when the electronic hum of the bass and organ come up against the simplicity of a hand, of a breath. The bells do little more than shake every so often, but it has this striking humanity. And then the bass clarinet takes the melody, though it’s been a subtle underpinning all the time, and you know, without them ever uttering a word, that someone’s breathing there, someone real.