PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Music

Variety Lights: Central Flow

When former Mercury Rev member David Baker starts from scratch, he really starts from scratch.


Variety Lights

Central Flow

Label: Fire
US Release Date: 2012-06-12
UK Release Date: 2012-06-11
Label website
Amazon
iTunes

"You've been silent too long / Oh, we long to hear some truth."

David Baker was a founding member of Buffalo rock band Mercury Rev. His departure, whether amicable or acrimonious, was a textbook example of someone taking a sound with them. For Mercury Rev's first two albums, Yerself Is Steam and Boces, they dove headfirst into a spazzed-out brand of pop music for the dawn of the '90s; part navel-gazing mystique, part deafening guitar squalls, and an unrefined vocal presentation all came wrapped together in the Beefheart package from hell that probably frightened even the most dyed-in-wool Seattle scenester (and just how noisy do you have to be before you're kicked off the mainstage in Lolapalooza '93?). "Chasing a Bee" and "Carwash Hair" were the notable songs then and that certainly tells you something. When Baker left, that all changed. Mercury Rev's more "normal" aspects began to float to the surface, becoming more Radiohead than My Bloody Valentine. Baker took his weirdness and set up shop in Chicago. He released just one album in 1994 under the name Shady. Since then he's been a studio hired hand for various bands in the windy city. Apart from production credits, we have not heard anything from Baker until now. Teaming up with fellow electronics enthusiast Will MacLean, Baker is now operating under the moniker Variety Lights. Their first album Central Flow is every bit as baffling as his overall career.

Variety Lights is an electronic affair, so it's surprising that it's so sloppy. This has to be an intentional move since no one makes a living inside of recording studios while letting a fourth-best take make it to the mixing desk. The songs are largely made up of conglomerated analog synth parts, some melodic ("Establishment" and "Silent Too Long") and some downright crazy in their own subtle ways ("Sea Faraway"). As far as this ear can tell, there is no quantizing of rhythm. Simple keyboard vamps that let the speed of their pulse go astray now and then are not corrected. Baker's low-register singing voice doesn't take any great effort to stay in tune, be it on its own or overdubbed with an equally awkward falsetto.

Central Flow gives the impression that it is operating like any other pop album; an average number of songs, an average length, some lyrics, it all must be linear somehow. But this is an odd album because it wants you to squirm. "Starlit", the opener, is less a song than an excuse to try out a bunch of equipment. The sounds bounce against one another instead of complimenting one another, and the lyrics are anyone's guess. "Crystal Cove" proves again that, in the throes of deconstructing a "song", Baker and MacLean would rather ooze out sounds that are at war with one another than establish a connection with the listener.

Central Flow has its more accessible moments but they still don’t feel very approachable. The single "Silent Too Long", while still catchy in its own twisted way, is at the mercy of Baker's sarcastic vocal delivery, suggesting he may not buy into his own myth of being a pop music Salinger. "Empathy", "burden of proof", "faces in the crowd"...it all sounds so deadpan. "Establishment" is another skewed bid for melody, a song that barely hangs together with precarious keyboard arrangements, no percussion, warbled vocals and a disaffected tale of singing delirious songs and jumping into a pool.

When Central Flow shoots in the opposite direction, the results are similarly disorienting. Sequencing the end of the album with one aesthetically clouded song with synthesizers set to "indulge" ("Feeling All Alone") followed by an undirected search for an idea in an ungainly mix ("Infinity Room") must be part of the album’s overall uncompromising nature.

That's the dilemma with Variety Lights' Central Flow. On the one hand, there's nothing like it. But on the other hand, there's nothing like it. Its unwillingness to adapt could prove to be its boon or its bane. Adapt to what, though? The current electronic avant-garde? Old Mercury Rev fans who bailed out after Boces? Guys who like to spend their lunch breaks looking at Moogs on eBay? All of these people will have hurdles to overcome when listening to Central Flow. It's just a difficult album and Baker's refusal to refine anything only adds to the difficulty.

5

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Music

Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."

Music

50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.

Film

Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.

Film

The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.

Music

Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Music

'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.

Music

Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.

Music

MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.