[5 August 2009]
In a year swarming with disappointments, tumbling from the breathlessly hyped box of new releases, it’s a relief to report that the sophomore effort from Black Mountain cohorts Lightning Dust is a refreshing follow-up to their satisfying debut. Although hardly a ground-breaking record by any means—lacking any real claim to reinvention in the crowded indie rock world of the 2000s—it’s a sturdy building block on their previous outing, gliding gently from sighing stringed ballads and swirling acid-laced pysch folk to tip-tapping mid-tempo strollers and haunting dirges bound by airy drums and eerie keyboards without missing a beat.
Amber Webber and Joshua Wells, the two masterminds behind the dusty, spindly sounds of Lightning Dust, find a quietly enticing niche, protruding outside of the confines of their meeting grounds in Black Mountain. Here, they’ve developed a hypnotic, uplifting mélange of sounds and senses, nudged forward by the Steinway Grand piano that pulses like a battered, bruised heart at the center of the record. With a knack for elastic, rolling melodies that bleed effortlessly into each other, they infuse an inevitable feeling that each track is simultaneously coiling and unraveling in its spiraling leap to the finish line. However, somewhere mid-way through the record (though it’s hard to pin-point where exact, thanks in part to the duo’s aptitude for crafting a seamless ambiance), pacing problems do threaten to derail the ride, leaving the languid second half feeling a whit anti-climactic, even amid stand-outs such as the breathless, persevering survivor’s spirit of “Waiting on the Sun to Rise”. Far from a fatal flaw, it does slightly hinder the record’s capacity to sustain the listener’s attention over multiple spins as strongly as previous works from Lightning Dust’s sister projects.
Thankfully sidestepping pitfalls that so often mire the works of their contemporaries—who mistake callow self-aggrandizement for majesty—Webber and Wells coalesce in their ability, through clever arrangements, to sound grand and towering with a minimalist instrumental approach. Too often in today’s underground pop/rock scene, bands tend to borrow liberally from the Wall of Sound songbook without imprinting their own character on the tunes spun from it. Lightning Dust manage to inject a fresh, blinding vision of alluring mystique, cultivating glowing mountains out of a bare-bones aesthetic. Billowing from this architecture of their lush-yet-sinewy theatricality, their songs feel unearthed, not constructed, portraying a strength and pride through love with their heart-pounding narratives and emotionally powerful delivery.
That delivery, resting on a bed of complementary call-and-response musical support, remains their secret weapon, but also their Achilles’ heel. Webber’s quavering vocals—sounding like a smokey, weathered Stevie Nicks—are instantly striking, wisely and sparingly planted beneath Black Mountain work-outs like a damp, absorbing seed, lending an off-kilter, ominous vibe to their gnarly brand of bubbling, thrashing garage-prog. When directed to the foreground here, however, that same world-weary quiver, while singularly beautiful and mystical in its mere presence, over the course of a full-length album retains a one trick pony element that keeps it from fully engaging the way it’s able to when pushed and prodded below the surface as an atmospheric device. Hopefully, the group explores new territories on future efforts that manage to utilize this treasure of a voice in a more consistently captivating manner.
Although they lack the dark, portentous majesty they conjure with their upstarts in Black Mountain, Lightning Dust reveal subtle charms that are more suitable to their impressionistic, ethereal approach. With a strong debut and, despite minor quibbles, an even stronger follow-up, the duo of Webber and Wells are proving to be, alongside Pink Mountaintops, one of the more interesting and promising projects spawned from the great Black Mountain Army. It’s difficult to imagine this retro-fitted, forward-moving collective of brothers and sisters crafting anything less-than-inspired. The more we venture into flight over their musical landscape, the greater command they have over their otherworldly powers. Here’s to hoping we never land.