For those of you who’ve ever heard an Audion track, the tenor of Matthew Dear’s virtuosic reincarnation might come as something of a surprise. Audion, as exemplified by “Kisses” or “Mouth to Mouth”, is surging, to-the-minute techno; under his own moniker, the Chicago artist has always been more concerned with how to bring the same stringent quality of the best electronic compositions to pop music. Of course, it’s not just Audion/Dear — the musician has as many projects as he has musical interests; but it’s this one, right now, that counts.
I guess the disadvantage of coming in towards Matthew Dear’s solo sound from the more ascetic perspective of straighter tech-house is an unfortunate limiter — i.e., the perception that you have to appreciate dance’s euphoric repetition or even (it’s implied above, isn’t it?) know what Audion sounds like. Truth is, Dear’s music on Asa Breed is as accessible as any Matthew Herbert, Books, or Hot Chip record, and should be heard even if your musical adventures tend to only minorly intersect with that whole electronic music thing.
This is truer for Asa Breed than for previous Dear releases, and it’s mostly due to the fact that Dear makes these songs with recognizable structures, vocal melodies, and even, towards the end, traditional rock accompaniments. Live drums are used throughout the record, which makes the songs pop, punch harder than the shh-shh of a drum machine. And some of Dear’s documented influences — African rhythms, Talking Heads, etc — are brought more to the fore, making the music more forthright in its exposition of emotion.
More often than not, that emotion’s depressive: a shroud covers about half of the album, as Dear channels his best angsty-indie-singer impression to great effect. He’s not going to win any vocal awards, but his baritone is fine in service of the complex moods created by the layering synths and pattering beats. He chants flatly or breaks with sadness depending on the track. Plenty of echo and plenty of layering cover the vocal lines much of the time, but despite this the words are always easily understandable: “I was supposed to make grand observations / But I’ve lost my train of thought”, on “Death to Feelers”, e.g.
The other half of the coin’s, at first blush, simple: lighthearted disco-pop with a straightforward desire to please. “Pom Pom” is childhood techno, twee techno; but the child’s voice at the end of the track tells us more about love than the call-and-response lyrics (“Love… is such a tricky thing / Love… can include diamond rings”) ever do. Of course it’s on purpose. That “Death to Feelers”, too, is melodic and sunny, it’s trotting rhythms recalling Paul Simon circa Graceland. The song hits with the same studied literacy of the Books. Dear even seems to address this multiple personality thing of dance artists mentioned earlier on “Don and Sherri”: “My name doesn’t change very often / But it’s never been Don and Sherri.”
It’s true that towards disc’s end the character changes, there’s a drop in mood and the introduction of acoustic guitars that gradually take a dominant role. And though the true dance aficionados might feel a bit betrayed by this shifting mood, for the rest of us the result is hauntingly beautiful. “Midnight Lovers”, falling into a worn out Western groove, is close to perfect. A swirling mass of guitar fuzz and steadily-trenchant beat blows across the track like a low, menacing cloud. Even “Vine to Vine”, the secret track that makes no pretense about its adoration of Mr. Cash, swallows the listener in atmosphere and its odd, Kill Bill-esque plot.
Go listen to Asa Breed. It’s certainly one of the most accomplished electronic crossovers so far this year, and if it doesn’t have the same immediacy of the Knife’s haunted Gothic style, it’s made up for by a surprising twist: it shows us just how efficiently dance music can inform a basic pop structure, giving it direction and interest. The album is a fully realized and flawlessly executed excursion into flowing mood, layered atmosphere, and surprisingly gorgeous melody. A keeper.