[5 April 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The excitement in Windy & Carl’s music comes in how the married couple inverts our expectations of organic music. They sound, well, alien. In fact, their music’s vibe often aligns more with ambient electronica than most any pop music featuring live instrumentation. The music’s draw, though, comes in its ass-backwards approach to sound. If electronic music is about rendering blood-and-bone feeling out of cold mechanics, out of the unnatural, Windy & Carl take the wholly natural sounds—guitar, bass, voice—and make them limitless. They cut them free from our contained world of pop structures. They start in the natural musical world and expand beyond it, rather than working their way in from the outside.
As if to remind us of this organic base in their sound, the duo’s new record, We Will Always Be, begins with what might be their strangest song yet. “For Rosa” is strange because it actually sounds like a song. An acoustic guitar gets strummed; a voice nearly enunciates words in a way you can understand. Its pieces are distinct from each other, even down to the ability to hear when one strum of a chord ends and the other begins. If we’re used to sonic blending from Windy & Carl, in the melding of smudged sounds into something more atmospheric, then this straight-ahead song is the outlier in their long discography. It’s also a perfect start to this, their latest great record. It’s a starting point, a dock to tether Windy & Carl’s sonic sounds to even as you realize that the tether is a long one, that they will still drift out to sea. No matter how far they wander here, “For Rosa” is still off in the distance, still attached, still there to tell us that these songs are of the world, and beautifully so, even as they aspire to expand beyond it.
After “For Rosa”, we drift into territory we’re more familiar with in the music of Windy & Carl. “Remember” shimmers endlessly, with Windy’s vocals drifting in and out over airy keys and the slow, steady thump of a bass. Along with later tracks like “The Smell of Old Books”, this song feels like what we already know about the band, but it also confirms that there’s still plenty to learn in their sound, countless layers to dig through and get lost in. We’re still lured into these songs, no matter how well-worn and familiar they may seem.
Other moments, though, distinguish We Will Always Be as a distinct shift for the band. With the more physical sound of “For Rosa” in mind, other songs find certain instruments breaking through the soaring miasma to assert themselves. They’re not quite riffs, but they do establish clear lines that run though and eventually fade from the otherwise expansive, seemingly formless movements. Tension grows on snapped-off guitar notes on “Spires”. A high trickling hook rises and falls through the chilly tones of “The Frost in Winter”. Even “Looking Glass”, which presents itself as a more gauzy ambient movement, has a white-noise grind that slowly takes over the airy keys that dominate the track.
This all builds to the album’s finest achievement, the nearly 19-minute closer “Fainting in the Presence of the Lord”. The song perfectly meshes this physical organic side with the band’s trademark alien space. As the song moves on, it shifts its focus from those drifting keys to a biting, grating wave of distortion. You can picture the player leaned over the guitar, teasing these tones out. You can picture the barely visible vibration of the amp’s speaker, imagine the sound travelling through wires to get to you. It’s a sound felt far more than it’s heard, and it becomes all-encompassing. The more you listen to it the more you’ll feel a part of it. Windy’s vocals, treated to sound acidic and broken down, hide far down in the mix, but you’ll find yourself digging for them, trying for a connection. As much as the music here aims for the stratosphere, in the end, it circles back around, returns to that dock where we’ve been waiting, gathering itself all around us.
.We Will Always Be is the rare record that feels both comforting—it is, front to back, a Windy & Carl record—and wholly fresh. The band has spend so long rendering the physical (i.e. instruments) into abstraction (i.e. ambient sound), but here, they muddy the waters, combining the material and the intangible, the natural and the alien, in new and surprising ways. The more we get lost, the more we find. The less we can see the borders, the more things start to take shape.