Way back in 1984, Rain Parade guitarist Dave Roback convened a group of fellow Los Angeles neo-psychedelic musicians to collaborate on a covers album of 1960s music called Rainy Day. Using little more than strummed acoustic guitar and the reverb-drenched voices of Bangle Susanna Hoffs and Kendra Smith of the Dream Syndicate, the LP offered up spaced-out, minimalist renditions of such songs as the Velvet Underground’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and the Buffalo Springfield’s “Flying on the Ground Is Wrong”. With this LP, Roback had (perhaps unwittingly) crafted the American version of dream pop, a genre known for its atmospherics and its near-exclusive use of female vocals (Cocteau Twins were early pioneers). Roback apparently liked this new sound, because he used it for his next band, Opal. And the one after that, Mazzy Star.
The male-female duo Arthur & Yu’s sound recalls Rainy Day, but it’s unlikely these Seattle musicians have ever heard that record, considering its been out of print for the better part of 20 years. Still, Arthur & Yu count the same influences as Roback & Co., such as the Velvets (who they cited in an interview) and Neil Young (to whom they dedicate a song). And they came up with a sound that’s just as evocative and hypnotizing.
If you like any of the above bands, you’ll probably take to this CD. Arthur & Yu is the first act signed to Sub Pop Records’ newly-formed Hardly Art label, and they present a pretty good example of why dream pop can be so ingratiating. Main singer Sonya Westcott and instrumentalist and occasional vocalist G. Olsen design an otherwordly haven of sound on the ten-song In Camera. (Several musicians assist on the disc, but Westcott and Olsen are the auteurs here.)
Their childlike arrangements, which utilize glockenspiels and a Casio keyboard, are compelling because they tap into our collective unconscious and make us recall music from our past. Think lullabies, ice cream truck jingles, and folk songs. The childhood-innocence motif probably isn’t accidental; the duo’s moniker is made up of nicknames they had as kids.
But cute arrangements do not a great album make. In Camera invites repetitive listening because main writer Olsen knows how to write a melody that grabs you even as it lulls you into a trance. In other words, he doesn’t forget to put the “pop” into dream pop. You don’t forget the hooks on songs like “Come to View (Song for Neil Young)” and “1000 Words” and “Lion’s Mouth”. “There Are Too Many Birds” matches Westcott’s whispered vocals with a gorgeous sunny melody that could have been a hit in, say, 1968.
When the duo harmonizes, like on “Flashing the Lobby Lights”, or shares vocals on “!000 Words”, the results start to edge closer to adult contemporary, although Olsen’s deliberately rough production assures these tracks will never make it onto your local Lite Rock station. The most obvious comparison people have made regarding some of these tracks is to Nancy Sinatra’s work with Lee Hazelwood, but that duo’s music was far more contrived and in-your-face than that of Arthur & Yu. The gauzy, distorted (and somewhat unintelligible) vocals instead seem a deliberate throwback to the Velvet Underground’s Nico-era recordings (funnily enough, there’s a Velvets song that references Nancy Sinatra).
On the negative side, one reason you don’t forget these songs is that they’re somewhat derivative of older songs — a little Creedence here, a little Velvets there. And if you prefer some power with your pop, this is not the place to find it. The biggest flaw of In Camera is its samey, droning textures. That goes with the genre’s territory, though; you can’t have dream pop with ripping guitars. And, of course, for people who like mid-tempo, droning music (count me as one of ’em), the tone of this CD is not a problem at all.
The hard-to-decipher lyrics work in the record’s favor. “Absurd Heroes Manifestos”, the lead-off cut, seems to be a call to arms for disgruntled workers. But who knows? It sets a mood with its synthetic bells and stark tone, and the listener is left to extract meaning from the general impression of the song. A lyric sheet would have ruined the mystery Arthur & Yu seem to want to create. Maybe they should have called it Camera Obscura.
Cute without being cutesy, mysterious without being totally off-putting, In Camera is a record that draws you in with its sound, but draws you back with its songs. In a few weeks, I’ll eventually get more of a gist as to what these songs are about and regret that I couldn’t make more sense of the record sooner. But being able to gradually pull meaning from a record (or any work of art, for that matter) is becoming a lost pastime in the modern media-scape of sound bites and garishness. Maybe it’s better I didn’t have a lyric sheet for this review. Some things aren’t supposed to be easily deciphered; you need to just accept the skewed sense of reality. Like in a dream.