The Godparents of chillwave and hypnagogic bask in the sun, examine childhood's end, and write the most gloriously imperfect songs you've ever heard.
Brevity was never the problem with Dandelion Gum. So, the fact that Graveface Records are reissuing a version of Black Moth Super Rainbow’s signature 2007 disc expanded with pickings from the Drippers and The House of Apples and Eyeballs EPs (the latter a collaboration with the Octopus Project), as well as a couple of leftovers, should not be heralded as anything but a continuation of the band’s habit of overindulging.
In a review of Ariel Pink’s Grandes Exitos from years back, Mike Powell wrote that the “imperfections [in Pink’s music] actually are its selling point”. The same could be said of Black Moth Super Rainbow, who should be identified, though they rarely are, alongside Pink as Godparents of chillwave and hypnagogic pop.
As an album, Dandelion Gum is already a bit ragtag. Not every track is essential and adding nearly twice as many songs does not help matters. As fantastic a listen as Black Moth Super Rainbow are, it is possible to overdose. But this also seems to be exactly the point, as the band’s music exists as the exact nexus where the vivid Technicolor fantasy of nostalgia risks turning into a nightmare.
I’ve flip-flopped on Eating Us, the group’s follow-up to Dandelion Gum. A valiant attempt at a big(ger) budget breakthrough, Eating Us recruited the help of superstar producer David Fridmann, who brought along the confetti-laced symphonics, overamped compression, and blown-to-shit percussion he previously applied to bands like the Flaming Lips and OK Go. There was something a bit off about that album though. After taking from a break from Black Moth Super Rainbow for a while, I returned instead to Dandelion Gum and realized that what was missing from Eating Us was that there was nothing missing from Eating Us. Fridmann had filled in that mysterious absence that kept Black Moth Super Rainbow’s previous albums quirky and imperfect.
In Dandelion Gum, the band’s definitive statement, there was that sad inchoate incorrectness that can be traced throughout so much of Not Not Fun and Olde English Spelling Bee’s output. Indeed, what ironically made Black Moth Super Rainbow great was that they weren’t the greatest band in the world, but nobody bothered to tell them. It didn’t matter either because they already had the coolest riffs, the sweetest effects, and the most deranged charm.
Black Moth Super Rainbow were like Boards of Canada reimagined as skatepunks (Drippers track “Black Yogurt”, curiously absent here, even featured punk icon Mike Watt) who never learned that textural music is supposed to be atmospheric too. Yet, in terms of textures, they got off on them. Check the degraded piano interlude at the end of “Lost, Picking Flowers in the Woods”, the heavily filtered walkman-next-to-you beat of “Drippy Eye”, or what sounds vaguely like a horn solo by a spit-valve-filled-to-capacity trumpet played through melted crackly vinyl on “Neon Syrup for the Cemetery Sisters”.
The band’s formula is a pretty simple series of juxtapositions: fat jagged bass synths crossed with diabetically sweet high end, vivacious crisp technology married with a warped pastoralism as represented by either garbled flutes or folksy guitar strumming. Taken together the instrumentation could be seen thematically as an interplay between innocence and darkness, placing this work in tandem with Animal Collective’s bittersweet musings on childhood’s end.
The band’s lo-fi aesthetic also plays a part in this. The band is awash in kid’s Casiotone keyboards and an arsenal of refugee Salvation Army toy noisemakers, their album artwork draped in the colors of ancient discarded bubble gum wrappers and faded excavated comic book covers. They’ve had more than one album with a scratch ‘n’ sniff cover. Black Moth Super Rainbow’s purported audience is ideally anyone from suburban America who was already alive but not yet a teenager in the ‘80s. The Reagan era wet dream of a constantly revitalizing, recapitulating, shiny, polychromatic America as an exciting utopian ideal is a shared media memory for all children of relative privilege who grew up immersed in the fantasy of pop culture.
For Black Moth Super Rainbow, there’s something beautiful about that fantasy, but it’s also troubling in its pathology and unreality. Perhaps that’s why the band’s sun-baked wonderlands carry the cachexy whiff of sickness throughout in song titles like “Drippy Eye”, “The Afternoon Turns Pink” and “Spinning Cotton Candy in a Shack Made of Shingles” (Tobacco’s solo work evokes even more diseased titles: “Truck Sweat”, “Motorlicker”, “Hairy Candy”, “New Juices from the Hot Tub Freaks”, et al.). Even Dandelion Gum itself is a pretty sickening concept when you stop and think about it. The effect is a bit like the LSD beginning to turn, the hallucination itself telling you that what’s running through your veins is a poison, like the diseased virtual reality gamepod in David Cronenberg’s film eXistenZ.
“When the sun grows on your tongue,
You won't want to stop him.
You're gonna die, we're all gonna die,
We won't want to stop him.”
-- Black Moth Super Rainbow-“When the Sun Grows on Your Tongue”
The voice is part of the deranged otherness of Black Moth Super Rainbow. Whereas countless groups, electronic acts specifically, have used the vocoder and its kin (the talk box, auto-tune, et al.) as a gimmicky effect, Black Moth Super Rainbow are bold in that their vocals are recorded exclusively through vocoders. The vocoded delivery is generally distorted, but discernible, assuming the role of the talking animatronic frog at the amusement park, the Teddy Ruxpin doll with a dying battery, or the cartoon robot on a channel that doesn’t quit come in.
Lyrically, the band seem obsessed with lying around in fields awaiting the arrival or departure of the sun (one the deluxe edition of Dandelion Gum’s b-sides is called “We Are the Pagans”, reinforcing all the implications of nature-worship on the record). Yet, for all their hippie-dippie pastoral romanticism, Black Moth Super Rainbow are truly weird in their points of emphasis. The album opens with “Forever Heavy”, whose chrome synth chords breathe in and out like an accordion, or swinging to and fro on a hammock. “In a field” a voice intones, adding the deeply creepy fatalistic “for-eh-verrrr” to indicate that greener pastures are no longer a utopian ideal when everything else has been scrubbed away. They are stuck there forever, so the field is all they know. Later, on “Sun Lips”, the band, seemingly collectively, speaks through the vocoded voice to express that ““We wait in summertime/We miss you in summertime”, as if they were stuck in an eternal summer without the ones they love.
The deluxe edition of Dandelion Gum is a curious package. The band could have easily shoved the entire Drippers EP onto the end of the package and called it a day. Chopping it up with The House of Apples and Eyeballs and a couple of outtakes would appear to be a qualitative choice based on those records’ admittedly spotty tracklistings. Yet, the best Drippers cut “Zodiac Girls” (also released as a 7” single) is missing, amongst others, and listeners are instead treated to unnecessary demos of “Twin of Myself” (the peak Eating Us track, which doesn’t appear to have changed that much) and “Untitled Roadside Demo”.
Yet, even second-rate blow-offs like B-side material “Royal Firecracker Teeth” contribute to the aforementioned beauty-in-slackerdom aesthetic described above. “Lemon Lime” and “Helium Tea” are under a minute a piece, snapshots of songs captured in dizzying luminescence, each a core ripped from the whole and all the better for it. “Helium Tea”, in fact, is just a loop, but when you hear that loop you realize why they didn’t want to let that one go. Best of the bunch are: “Happy Melted City”, a deliriously trippy ditty with no bass fixture and a decayed vocal singing over worn down synth gloop; the ethereal “Another Place”, which is a bit like the gorgeous pieces on group member Seven Fields of Aphelion’s debut solo album; and “Old Yes”, a shoegaze rollerdisco slow jam that ends jarringly abruptly.
If they continue making records, Black Moth Super Rainbow will be sure to put out more than a few inessential ones. With the reissue of Dandelion Gum, they’ve attempted to do that with their only essential one. Yet, even at their worst, Black Moth Super Rainbow are still worth listening for all the delectable imperfections they churn out. If you already own Dandelion Gum, you certainly do not need this reissue, but Black Moth Super Rainbow are not really about what you need, anyway.