Music

Headphones: self-titled

Zeth Lundy

Pedro the Lion's David Bazan goes synth-pop. Like any experiment, it yields impressive results with a few injurious side effects.


Headphones

Headphones

Label: Suicide Squeeze
US Release Date: 2005-05-10
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon affiliate
Amazon
iTunes

When Pedro the Lion's David Bazan first heard "A Spoonful Weighs a Ton" from the Flaming Lips' 1999 acid-pop opus The Soft Bulletin, he had an artistic revelation. He immediately acquired a synthesizer and decided to radically revamp Pedro the Lion's setup: from now on, only synths and live drums.

Although the band never ended up changing the way he intended it would, Bazan clung to his synthesizer obsession, apparently grooming it for another outlet. It spawned a new side project, christened Headphones, featuring Bazan, Tim Walsh (T.W. Walsh), and drummer Frank Lenz (Starflyer 59).

The group's debut release Headphones is disarmingly simple and plainly direct: the entire record is comprised of synthesizers, Lenz's deep-grooved drums, and Bazan's vocals. The synths that Headphones employ are descendents of Asteroids and Pac Man; they bleep and bloop with an archaic familiarity, recalling the commercial prospects of the instrument in a stark, unadorned presentation. Although intrinsically mechanical, they also sound inappropriately emotional, like their depressed keys are set with pairs of droopy basset hound eyes. In accordance with (and sometimes smothering) Bazan's lyrical subject matter (backstabbing, double standards, transparent facades, exploitation of faith), the synths do everything in their power to elicit palpable empathy from the listener. If they could physically drop you to your knees, make you pledge everlasting solidarity and understanding, they would.

That said, Headphones would have made a killer EP. Roughly half of the songs here are quite fantastic; in fact, they really do sound like Pedro the Lion, if its gear was replaced with machines. "Gas and Matches", a drunkenly bobbing tune about a practical joke gone horribly awry, pulsates like slo-core Depeche Mode. "Shit Talker" moves begrudgingly like a New Wave funeral procession, Lenz's stiff, bombastic drums shuffling under chord shifts that recall classical motifs. "Hot Girls"'s synths and drums throb in skeletal tandem, Bazan wryly criticizing the commercial huckster. "Style is taking over and everybody knows / That songs are on their way out," he deadpans, and then addresses a friend looking to make a quick buck: "I called to beg you not to write that stupid song / But as it happens now it's burning up the charts / And breaking hot girls' hearts as it masquerades as art". Bazan's greatest lyrical accomplishment (and Headphones' most subversively catchy song) is "Natural Disaster", a viciously accurate assessment of the American government's abuse of faith and fear, sung from the perspective of the president himself. Bazan's narrator justifies his preemptive, self-serving sensibilities thus: "You would wait on the rapture or a natural disaster to come around / Or maybe a couple of airplanes could crash into buildings / And put the fear of God in you". ("Major Cities", the record's other flagrantly political song, isn't as successful melodically, though it may be creepier. Its narrator prepares his child for another disaster, advising her to "sit back and wait for the attacks" and admitting "I agree this doesn't favor me / Still, bullies ought to get what's coming".)

As much as Headphones' dirge-imbibed pop can seep under your skin, it can also occasionally grate upon it; the reticent formula of synths-drums-vocals is, from time to time, run into the ground, mostly at the expense of redundancy. The nasty "I Never Wanted You" perpetuates mechanical drones akin to the brainwashing codes in Strange Brew, sinking with its subject matter into a pit of loathing. "Hello Operator" and "Wise Blood" add nothing new or noteworthy to the proceedings; if they weren't sequenced next to stronger songs, perhaps they wouldn't provoke such lethargic indifference. And the closing track "Slow Car Crash" is the most depressing thing here, for it's the only song on the record to find love, an expression that is manifested through the imminent doom of a horrible tragedy.

Still, there's a wealth of gloomy goodness to be found within Headphones' 10 tracks, though you'll most likely have to pick and choose. Bazan's wrecked lyrics invite us to reconsider the emotional palette of synthesizers, and the record is notable for adhering to a set of creative specifications. Just like Bazan's songs, Headphones is commendable for being both expressively unflinching and artistically unwavering.

7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.

Books

For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?

Music

Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".

Music

Becky Warren Shares "Good Luck" and Discusses Music and Depression (premiere + interview)

Becky Warren finds slivers of humor while addressing depression for the third time in as many solo concept albums, but now the daring artist is turning the focus on herself in a fight against a frightful foe.

Music

Fleet Foxes Take a Trip to the 'Shore'

On Shore, Fleet Foxes consist mostly of founding member Robin Pecknold. Recording with a band in the age of COVID-19 can be difficult. It was just time to make this record this way.

Books

'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.

Film

Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.

Music

3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".

Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor
Film

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.

Music

Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.

Music

Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.

Music

Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.

Music

Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


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.