[24 March 2013]
The word “androgynous” gets tossed around to describe the voice of Toronto by way of Montreal songsmith Airick Woodhead, who records under the name Doldrums, an awful lot. Chances are, if you’ve read a review online of his debut full-length album (including this review, I now suppose), you will see the word pop up, sometimes even repeatedly during the course of the discussion at hand. I’ll be honest with you, dear reader and listener: the first time I head Lesser Evil, I was convinced—absolutely convinced—Doldrums was the product of a female vocalist. But, no, Airick Woodhead is a guy who happens to sound very girlish to disorienting effect. And disorienting would be a good way to describe the fractured pop of Lesser Evil. The first time I heard Lesser Evil, if not the second time, my gut reaction to this was ... WTF? Seriously. And I’ll be candid: I was preparing to write a review that ended with the lines, “Doldrums is an apt choice for a band name. That’s because this album is the pits.”
So, to be fair, Lesser Evil is not an immediately inviting album, and you’ll have to listen to it on repeat before it all clicks and begins to make sense, and you realize that Woodhead is the natural extension of the sound of Brian Wilson on acid, a comparison Animal Collective has been saddled with in recent years. It could be argued, though, that Lesser Evil is far more abrasive, and yet abrasively beautiful, than anything Animal Collective has put to print. But I say “could be argued” because I’m unsure: my vinyl copy of the last Animal Collective is still sitting in shrinkwrap, unheard, because, let’s face it, sometimes as a reviewer, you have to forgo your personal collection and take on assignments before your own personal enjoyment. Anyway. I’m not complaining, believe me. I love this job, even when people hate what I have to say. Well, most times.
I also felt, the first time I heard this and was prepared to believe that this record was godawful, that this is the sort of things hipsters would get behind and enjoy the heck out of. In fact, I thought this, and woke up the next morning to a Pitchfork review (they got the album earlier than I did, I suppose) that awarded this an 8.0, and I really felt, “Yep, feelings confirmed.” There’s another reason why Lesser Evil might be dismissed as mere hipster bait by would-be churlish reviewers like myself: Woodhead is on the same indie label as It Girl du jour Grimes, and, not only that, has toured and collaborated with her. Woodhead even is said to have recorded this album on a broken laptop supplied by the one and only Claire Boucher, then featured a photo of the broken monitor as the cover art. So, yes, being associated with one of Canada’s hottest up-and-coming acts (and it could be argued that Grimes has already come, seeing that her song “Oblivion” graced the top of this website’s Best Songs of 2012 list) is going to get a lot of hip fanboys and the music press salivating at the mouth over this release. But focusing on that is doing a disservice to the music, for, once you get around to the fact that this is a rather unconventional pop album, there’s something below the surface that’s worthy of scratching and gnawing at.
So let’s talk about the music. Yes, Lesser Evil is difficult. Yes, you may really, really hate this record the first time you hear it and will wonder if your infant cousin could put something better together on his music box. This record’s sonics are like a Brillo pad. But once you come around to the experimental and skewed nature of the music, you will begin to realize that there’s a plethora of songcraft, pop songcraft, in evidence. For instance, while “She Is the Wave” is getting all the press for being the BEST. SONG. ON. THE. ALBUM., I actually prefer its follow-up, “Sunrise”. At just a hair more than two minutes in length, it’s probably the most straight ahead song on the record, with a sunkissed Beach Boys vibe to the effort, and creaky keyboards that could have been lifted from the last U.S. Girls record. I love it, but the only quibble I have is that the song stops dead, as though Woodhead wasn’t sure how to proceed with the statement. “Egypt” is also noteworthy, with a twitchy tribal rhythm that wouldn’t be too far afield from a mid-period Talking Heads album. And I enjoy the dark, twisted final song “Painted Black” in that it sounds very fragile and tiny, as though the artist is about to become unhinged completely in his reading of the piece, and there’s some great lollygagging keyboards that swish gently into that good night.
But, I’ll be honest: I’m still not 100 percent sure that I like or enjoy this record, and if I had to buy this with my own limited coin, I’d probably take a pass. However, Lesser Evil is not without its merits, and there’s something here for those willing to wade through the murk and warped, fractured imagination of Woodhead, and you may come to realize that he’s doing something truly challenging. You have to award him some marks for effort, at least. Still, you walk away from Lesser Evil wishing that it might have been a bit more streamlined in its pop ambitions, and did away with the glitchiness and gimmickry, and just delivered something a little more straight up. Woodhead has the tools in his arsenal as a songwriter—though his laptop is seemingly broken—and he might be better served trusting his instincts as a popsmith a little more, and do away with the borrowed equipment and connections to bigger name acts. Still, while Woodhead might sing like a girl, and his stuff is definitely on the outré side, Doldrums isn’t an apt name for a band. This stuff isn’t boring. And it isn’t quite the pits. I just still don’t know what to make of it, for all of its acclaim elsewhere.