[15 April 2014]
The thing about striking gold is that with each successive swirl of the pan, it becomes increasingly apparent just how rare the precious metal is. Likewise, the more the Portland duo Lilacs and Champagne explores their niche sonic, comprised of oddball sampling and psychedelic textures that practically emit weed smoke from the vinyl wax, the likelihood of the creative well bleeding dry becomes more probable. With 2012’s Lilacs and Champagne, Alex Hall and Emil Amos (of Grails fame) crafted an impressive debut that simultaneously plays off of trip-hop’s most basic tropes and concocts a murky stew of a sonic. The That ‘70’s Show basement pipe visions of the inimitable Lilacs and Champagne style are what makes the debut still a marvelous melange to listen to today, and in large part the duo carried over that style to its sophomore outing, Danish & Blue, released a year later. However, while that LP did everything that the debut did exactly right, in doing so it made the admittedly easy mistake of hitting repeat and assuming that the lightning strikes the same the second time. Slightly new variegations in the band’s sonic kept Danish & Blue from feeling like a complete rehash; fortunately, at this point in time, there’s still a newness to this paranoid sound. In my review of Lilacs and Champagne, I described the sound as “the soundtrack to watching The Friends of Eddie Coyle on a particularly dark trip,” a fact that remains true two years later.
The description is especially salient for the duo’s first EP, enigmatically titled Midnight Features Vol. 1: Shower Scene. Amazingly, whereas Lilacs and Champagne presented signs of a style that would not likely fare outside of a recording studio, Hall and Amos have taken their unmistakable experimenting out on the road, touring with similarly ambitious sonic manipulators such as Grails and Wrekmeister Harmonies. A result of this touring, aside from what were undoubtedly some pretty trippy live shows, is the music of Vol. 1, which melds together live instrumentation with the ambience and sampling of their studio output. Harpsichord bass notes trot out a rhythm akin to the Eagles’ “Those Shoes” to amp up the pace of Danish & Blue‘s “Le Grand,” here given the subtitle “(Brooklyn Bridge Version).” Propulsive drums and shredding guitar transform the chilled out Lilacs and Champagne cut “Sensations” into a jam that should be the envy of any classic rock revival group. The doomy mood that fuels the grand finale “Cinemaxx” caps off this short little EP with a satisfying sucker punch. If nothing else, Midnight Features is evidence that the plumes of bong smoke flowing from Lilacs & Champagne’s first two LPs were deceiving. Beneath the fog, there’s a veritable tour de force of a rock band waiting to be awakened.
But “if nothing else” are three words that don’t quite fit this EP. Where Danish & Blue indicated that entropy was the prognosis for this hyperspecific take on trip-hop, Midnight Features reveals that environmental factors are relevant to the duo’s success. In a way, this is a somewhat obvious observation given the songwriting style Lilacs and Champagne has peddled in up to this point. Even though the off-kilter samples and chord progressions are thoroughly planned out, they come together not as tightly knit puzzle pieces but rather as a potpourri. Upon hearing many of these songs, it’s easy to wonder just how it is they fall into place. That is the beauty of a well-crafted jam, after all: sometimes the music has to breathe, to roam free from the confines of the studio. Lilacs and Champagne are an odd combination, to be sure, but in taking to the stage, they demonstrate their oddity remains a successful enterprise. For that reason, it’s easy to hope that there’s more than one of these Features.