Although Emme Stone’s lovely cartoon imagery of a city skyline and hordes of similarly dressed and coiffed citizenry suggests yet another pan-indie-rock orchestra album, Dave Fischoff’s The Crawl is deeply hermetic, the result of one man recording at home, sometimes in his bedroom closet. But home recordings have come a long way, baby. If visions of a world-weary guitar strummer kneeling before a Tascam with cookie crumbs and hemp seeds on his shirt come to mind, forget them. Fischoff wields a hefty sack of sounds to construct his tightly packed, electronic pop songs — including the entire Chicago Public Library sound collection. The Crawl is ecstatic in its density; on each song, Fischoff revels in just how much sound he can cram in without sacrificing clarity or the simple joys of a sugar-coated melody.
It’s been five years since Fischoff’s previous release, The Ox & the Rainbow, and the songs on The Crawl instantly seem to justify the wait. The instrumental “In a Lightless Carriage” alone feels like a season’s effort of exploration and constant tweaking. Twittering beats reminiscent of the “glitch-tronica” of Oval and Autechre underpin a melodic progression built on church bells and other glassy textures. The bells in particular evoke an urban environment, wide city streets that magnify sound like cathedrals, grandiose architecture revealing the hopes and ambitions of the mortals looking for immortality in a towering office building or marble fountain. “In This Air” bears this theory out, an overwhelming map of words and sound: “It’s 12:45, Chicago in spring / sunlight cascades through the canyons of glass / offices glistening like new machines.” Fischoff’s self-harmonized voice is a whispered buzz, never rising above the flood of the music, but never struggling to, either; content to drift along just beneath the surface.
Lots of albums explore city life, the phenomenon of being an individual yet also part of a larger organism that is mass culture. The Crawl is charming in that it makes no overt statements about its subject; the city just happens to appear in every song, whether directly or inferred. Birds and buildings are everywhere, for example. “Flip Books” is about, well, flip books, but the city inevitably works its way into the song: “I make buildings crumble then rise again / birds pierce horizons then fall back to earth / on the weight of impossible wings.” The song itself plays like a flip book at first, its percussion skipping at an unrelenting pace before slowing down to allow Fischoff’s fuzzy, murmured vocals. “Rain, Rain, Gasoline” is a bittersweet tale of love found and lost with exquisite, carefully chosen details (“I knew a woman / I kissed her thigh / I watched my time grow / inside her eye”) and observations (“We didn’t know / that to love is to work / and to work is to survive / our hearts went sedate.” Yet the city is still there: “We sat on rooftops / we looked at birds / their tender bodies / echoed our words.” The backdrop of a large, complicated, teeming environment is central to Fischoff on The Crawl, even as the work itself was created sealed away, deep in the city’s heart.
Though he channels Bjork, Brian Wilson, the Polyphonic Spree, and even Public Enemy, often within a single composition, such as opener “The World Gets Smaller When You Dream”, Fischoff’s songs are intensely iconoclastic, a compendium of little obsessions that together create a vivid portrait of how their author views the world. “The cars and people in the street / Play out their parts in synchronized routines” could be a line from a particularly cynical Radiohead song, but Fischoff pairs it with “And humming hives and new machines / Are singing lines inside a symphony.” Similarly, “Landscape Skin” should by all rights collapse under the weight of its thousands of competing sonic layers, but instead it moves along briskly, keeping perfect time, as all of the wheels, pins, and gears in a clock tower keep everyone who looks upward on track and moving forward.