Blank Dogs: Under and Under

[29 July 2009]

By Stephen Haag

At the half-turn of the 2009 Record Release Derby, the chief contender for Truest Album Title is… well, this one. Mike Sniper, formerly of D.C. Snipers—the band, not the criminals—has piled the skronk plenty high on the batch of songs found on his sophomore outing as Blank Dogs, Under and Under. Sniper’s fealty to truth in advertising extends to his record label, In The Red; Under and Under is not afraid to put equalizer needles through their paces. Digging through the album’s layers of ‘80s post-punk, shoegaze, DIY/shitgaze, etc., it becomes apparent that Sniper’s bedrock is volume and excess. Whether or not you, Dear Reader, want to build a house on such a foundation is up to you.

Sniper, to his credit, is at the right place at the right time: operating while a popular (if divisive) noisy lo-fi scene is flourishing on In The Red and Siltbreeze and in cities across the country, aided further by added hype over Wavves’ Nathan Williams’ Barcelona Breakdown (there’s no such thing as bad press, right?).  Most importantly, and the thing that most music writers seem to pick up on, is Sniper’s facility in mixing the noise with ‘80s post-punk—zigging when most of his compatriots zag towards ‘60s garage.

Alright, so we’ve established that Under and Under plays out like a high-decibel Parking Lot Orchestra between, say, New Order’s “Ceremony” and “Fire in Cairo”-era Cure; how does that play out on the tracks? Consider the everything-all-the-time ethos (the album title that Band of Horses beat Sniper to): it’s everywhere, from the trebly riff of the former on “Tin Birds” to the goth, Cure-y keys of “Setting Fire To Your House”, “Face Watching”, and “Books”. The patient listener will be rewarded as all the layers of… stuff… fall away on repeated listens, but a word of warning: listening to this record on headphones, with every channel bleeding into every other channel, is the sonic equivalent of running into a brick wall—impenetrable and disorienting. Put it on a stereo and give it some room to breathe.

Under and Under is more often than not a good trick, catchy and insistent, but a nagging question remains: Is Sniper saying anything? Literally, of course, he is, but it’s nearly impossible to decipher. At its heart, though, the record’s pastiche, hearkening back to quarter-century-old touchstones, is still beloved here in the early 21st century. And yes, lesser bands have been strung up for smaller infractions, while larger bands get passes to bloviate as they see fit. Still: Under and Under, dense and buzzing, scuffed obsidian, feels like a record that possesses deeper truths. Are they there?

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