Moncrief helped produce the Dirty Projectors' Bitte Orca, but on his debut album he generally gives a less-melodic, more emotionally neutral take on Grizzly Bear. Cohesive it ain't, but some of the archness is transient enough to make for an engaging catch-yourself record. Good Halloween listen.
A fall record, and that's meant both seasonally and physically. Moncrief is a producer who's worked with Dirty Projectors and plays on tour with Marnie Stern, so fans of unorthodox indie groups with guitar figure-d atmospherics will likely find something to excite them in this debut. What's surprising about Watered Lawn, though, is (a) how genuinely haunting the sounds are, and (b) how over-bleached some of said sounds become when you take them with the unremitting archness of it all. Sometimes evocative, often oblique, and gradually frustrating, Moncrief's album basically sounds like an even more neutralized version of Grizzly Bear -- do with that what you will.
"Dirty Projectors, hmm?" one might already be thinking. "Pfft. Probably more art-rocky California sunshine." And yeah, basically. But this sunshine comes with an interesting qualifier: Watered Lawn is pitched at a level of consistent creepiness, with Moncrief's odd intervals and anodyne emotion suggesting something both unseen and unseemly. Wordless harmonic distortions are plentiful, providing a cushion of sorts for the more ghostly up-frontness of the voice. This music doesn't try to jump out at you with any kind of 'boo' moments, and it's better for it. Through the first half, there's a neat feeling of wafting along in a strange, slightly frayed world. This feeling can get under your skin in a pleasurable way -- albeit in small doses -- or in a suitably 'stagnant terror' frame of mind. It sounds like an ether fantasy of a child lost in the woods. Falling, falling, falling.
Now, Moncrief's unearthly vocal tone by itself would probably sound "disembodied" enough to most people. But it's the way that his voice lolls over the stuttering clicks and dilating electro-buggery that makes Watered Lawn's vague atmospherics transferable...sometimes. Opener "The Air", perhaps the most catchy tune on a not-particularly-catchy record, can scare the shit out of you at the appropriate time of night -- impressive, considering that it's mostly just acoustic guitar figures (pretty ones, too) rising up and down like tidewater to a slight, bass-heavy drum machine and that voice. "In This Grass" eventually brings in warped animal moans -- or imitations of same -- right where you'd expect lyrics, and in its last seconds the song picks up a chilled-out, more easily-danceable beat...promptly fading out. It's all about keeping you on your toes, this music...but gently on your toes.
But -- and this is a big "but" -- this record coasts way too much on goodwill, particularly in its second half. I mentioned earlier that Moncrief uses creative and effective intervals, but it should also be noted that by the album's midpoint, it sounds like he's using the same interval over and over again. He's not, of course -- but the melodies have become so slackened by that point that there just doesn't seem much else to do. The press kit likens one song to the style of Animal Collective's Panda Bear, but Moncrief has regrettably taken away one of the weaker lessons from Mr. Lennox and his ilk: that holding a complacent note longer necessarily makes it cumulative and emotive. This tactic often works toward the sound of vague contentment, which is a nice feeling but isn't all there is.
The lack of structural focus is no great offense, but at certain points the music just gets outright agitating. So many of the pieces are built up with fine acoustic underpinning, but the theory -- and it's certainly not just Moncrief who follows this theory -- is that you'll always be able to add as much squelchy digitalism as you want, and that it'll meet the delicate guitar figures head-on by necessity and without any problem at all. That'd be nice, but when the record really starts to mesh the swelled synth tones into the mix -- just after the charming "Lament for Morning" is my guesstimated point of ingress -- it winds up sounding both turgid and benign. Doesn't help when "Waiting for My Brothers Here" seems to be stuffing in its lyrics, or that several songs ("Time Passed By" being the most egregious offender) use the same off-kilter 808 dubsteppy beat that we've been hearing so much of lately. (Hey dubsteppers, a kind request: keep your vacant gazes as long as you want, but please don't rub yourself off on us tunewalkers.)
The sonics can sound special, mind. Since both the singing and the melodies, when they're around, have that same calm disembodiment to them, it's easier to notice when a good sound pops up, or at least an engaging one. "A Day to Die" uses forceful, swelling production to sound like the music is struggling from running backwards; "Cast Out for Days" somehow manages to wrap a relaxed vibraphone-synth drift with what sounds like a jet engine getting fucked by a didgeridoo (seriously). And for better or worse, chalk up "I Just Saw" as the third song in a year and a half to use a table tennis sample as rhythm (Flying Lotus and The Radio Dept. being two of probably others).
But after too short a time, Watered Lawn gets oppressive in its archness, and frankly it's a bit too lost in the clouds to justify it -- "lost" being the key word. The eerie falsetto leaps become a lot less eerie by the midpoint, and after a while it sounds as though those nets of wordless harmonies are keeping the music down. "Idea is the idea," Moncrief sings in "The Right Idea", and who would disagree with that? But y'know, it's hard to tell if he's being genuinely ambitious or humble to a fault. Either way, some tunes would've been nice.
For all the not-unjustified complaints about lyrical overkill, hammy singing, and a preference for "too much stuff," the Dirty Projectors' Bitte Orca was, in this writer's humble opinion, the best album of 2009 (I didn't even think it was that close), because the optimistic reach of its singing and lyrics were met gleefully and confidently by the insouciant instrumental counterplay...in a way that we hadn't heard before. I don't mean to draw up unfair comparisons, and I don't doubt that Moncrief - who helped engineer Orca - is going after his own sound and is capable of doing so. I look forward to his next record. But this tactic of combining electronic twitch with layers of harmonic interplay - and trying to steep it in pop melody (or at least the suggestion of same) - demands it, and makes the comparison perfectly fair. Moncrief is a talented guy who hasn't yet gathered the melodic ease to pull this stuff off holistically. Nice voice, though. But that's no surprise.