Guerilla Toss finds a focus in the center of shuffling beats and synths and shouts. The album is uneven, but it can tightens up the band's freak outs in a more focused way than ever before.
Eraser Stargazer, Guerilla Toss's first album for DFA, is the band's least frenetic, chaotic record yet. But Guerilla Toss, even in a more subdued mode, is more edged and unpredictable than most bands. On this record they haven't so much dulled their eccentricities as they have given them a better focus than on previous work like Gay Disco. They've found a focus somewhere in the center of this shuffling storm of beats and synths and shouts, and the album's best moments offer a tighter freak out than the band has ever accomplished before.
First and foremost, Eraser Stargazer is a dance record. Take opener "Multibeast TV". Sure, there's all that skronky keyboard and pulsing low-end, alongside Kassie Carlson's sneering shout, but if you sift through it there's a beat that has Funkadelic's DNA all over it. "Diamond Girls" shuffles with Afro-beat and Carribean leanings. "Color Picture" offers a searing Latin beat and tight hooks that get stuck in your head. "Perfume" turns to the danciest corners of post-punk. There's a connective tissue behind all these songs, the sense that the rhythm section is still at the heart of any good Guerilla Toss song. The drums are both clattering and tight throughout, and the bass doesn't seem to build lines so much as it melts over or between every snap of the snare, every crashing cymbal. The album still finds Guerilla Toss trying to shed influences -- it's hard to not hear Gang of Four and, more than before, Lizzie Mercier Descloux -- but these songs sound like a band more comfortable in its own skin, even as it pulls fitfully at every turn.
These moments work because they mesh tight rhythms with the band's natural quirks. It's not always easy to hear what Carlson is wailing about -- there's a general sense of condemning the inauthentic -- but it doesn't always matter. Her wordless howls are when she is at her most expressive on the record, conveying all the anger and energy in one high-note whoop after another. The tight rhythms also allow for tangles of sound to get twisted up in new and exciting ways. It's an album that you can get lost in on one hand and spend multiple close listens pulling at the layers on the other.
That several songs, like the ones above, yield new realizations when you pull at those layers. The trouble with Eraser Stargazer is that sometimes the band indulges eccentricities too much and ends up playing away from its strengths. The album's longest song, "Grass Shack", is the best example. It starts with a great groove. The rhythm section hits another tight stride, and a razorwire guitar hook joins in. It gives the album some space to breath, and you can start to notice the pathos in Carlson's voice, the nuance to it when there's room for its echo to reach out. But the idea gets unraveled by too many other ideas piled on top of it. The rhythm shifts, synths clog up the works with confusing 8-bit fills, and Carlson reverts to exhausted speak-singing. By the time the song ends, the sweet hook and danceable rhythm both seem a distant memory. "Big Brick", on the other hand, goes off the rails right away. What could be a quick, energetic blast, instead comes off as a crashing confusion. The rhythm section speeds along off-kilter, but even its impressive pace can't make the mess of keys and guitars make sense.
In the past, there's been a sense that Guerilla Toss's wildest moments on record might make more sense in the context of their live shows. But when Eraser Stargazer misses, it's hard to see those moments working there either. Guerilla Toss tends to right the ship more than often here, and the band's charm is still their defiant zeal. But it might be the fact that they've found their focus here -- oddball dance jams -- that makes the forced weirdness of their self-indulgences feel that much more frustrating. Guerilla Toss is headed in the right direction with Eraser Stargazer, but the band could sometimes stand to remember that they can make us dance and scratch our heads at the same time. They don't have to sacrifice one for the other.