Growing up doesn't have to mean growing apart: the Dandies come the closest they ever have to making a hometown album.
Distortland is the Dandies’ ninth studio album, the name an obvious play on their hometown of Portland, Oregon. A smoggy, blue and brown photograph of the Portland skyline features on the album cover. Despite their being a staple of ol’ PDX, a team to be cheered on alongside the likes of the Trail Blazers or the Decemberists, it has never been as easy to find a through line to the soggy Northwestern heart of their music as it is in, say, the writings of Colin Meloy. So this explicit homage is interesting, a suggestion that they may let their roots show through on the record. It delivers on this promise as much as it doesn’t.
Whatever else may be going on, it seems clear that the Dandies know how to crank out an album that sounds like them. Distortland’s opener “Search Party” lives in the pulsing synth and blurred, almost ambient vocals that call to mind their breakout Nick Rhodes-produced record Welcome to the Monkey House. The best melodic hook on the entire album blooms into life on the single “You Are Killing Me”, a track which maintains just enough shoegazey pretension to lend it credibility while still managing to be a fabulous pop song. “STYGGO”, another single released this year, is similarly memorable with subtle synthesized background texture and an infinitely hummable chorus of “doo-doo-doos".
There are certainly moments of floundering: the muddy, self-absorbed chug of “Semper Fidelis” never manages to reach an apex, nor does it provide any sort of musically interesting anticlimax. “All the Girls in London” uses a wheezing, accordion-esque synth sound which might be forgivable on its own, but coupled with a bizarre choice of deliberate voice-cracking, pubescent vocals, it is hard to listen to. A bewildering choice for the lead single, and yet….
The most versatile tracks are not always the most immediately successful, but they’re gratifying nonetheless. “Catcher in the Rye” sounds tailor-made to be used in the soundtrack of a sophomore liberal arts student’s attempt at an emotionally evocative short film. That’s not a bad thing! It appeals to a vulnerable, common feeling in a person. We’ve all been that film student, metaphorically speaking. “Give” is a song with good bones: under simple fingerstyle guitar and campfire strumming, we have a handful of satisfyingly unexpected chord changes and a melody that goes straight to the heart. Courtney Taylor-Taylor’s vocals, always breathy, are nearly asthmatic in their sincerity, so that the moments where he reaches into his upper register come out almost like a sigh of relief.
There’s a bit of Portland on here, a bit of the same mucky corner of the country that birthed grunge but also, bafflingly, Everclear, the Exploding Hearts, and the Epoxies. All of us in the ‘90s who were overdosing on indie rock and wearing rain-dampened flannel while eschewing umbrellas could have grown up to write a song like Distortland’s penultimate “Doves”. The record isn’t a tribute to the town they came up in, but nor is it the condemnation the title might suggest. Distortland is just where they’re at right now.
What does it mean to be the Dandy Warhols in 2016, still making records that sound exactly like the Dandy Warhols? It points either to an inability to grow and evolve, or to a clarification and condensation of a pursued aesthetic. In this case I’m inclined to believe the latter: the last track on Distortland, a brief coda entitled “The Grow-Up Song”, is acerbic and nostalgic in equal measure, but ultimately it gives the impression of a sort of resigned maturity, and that in itself can be comforting. After all, “I’ve got to admit I’m too old for this shit” is a pretty damning statement from a decades-old band, but I won’t argue it’s relatable as hell.