Stereo Sanctity Album of the Week
(September 14 - 20, 2008)
A lot has changed in the year and half since Deerhunter's breakthrough sophomore album Cryptograms, not least of which is frontman Bradford Cox's exaltation to bonafide indie-rock icon. The thing about Deerhunter though, is that when they release an album, it's a full band album, and not just an outlet for Cox's outsize persona (you can see Atlas Sound for that). So it goes with their surprisingly direct third record, Microcastle, which places Deerhunter - as a complete unit - among the most elite, innovative and inspiring of modern bands.
Cox spoke in detail leading up to Microcastle's release that he wanted to work in a more concise and direct manner than the band's previous work (the album title itself hints as this new direction). The resulting record then is Deerhunter's most blatant "rock" album to date. To be sure, there are none of the 8 minute ambient-drone experiments that anchored the first half of Cryptograms, and none of the noisy pysch excursions that many unexpecting listeners couldn't stomach. So I guess you could call this Deerhunter's pop record, although outside of a couple of legitimately awesome anthems, Microcastle finds the band mining quieter, more pastoral waters.
After the short introductory fanfare of "Cover Me Slowly" comes the first full song, "Agoraphobia", and instead of Cox's high, trembling vocals, the first voice you hear on Microcastle is from guitarist Lockett Pundt, reinforcing Microcastle as a full band effort. Pundt's voice isn't too far removed from Cox's otherworldly falsetto to be honest, and while neither have a whole lot of range, their light, evocative vocals lend the fainter hues of Microcastle an air of beauty that Cryptograms touched upon on it’s 2nd side but never fully embraced. Cox returns on the following track (and first single) "Never Stops", and it’s a hugely melodic and anthemic rock song that easily ranks as Deerhunter's most accessible moment to date. It's an album highlight and one of the great indie-rock songs of the year so far.
Deerhunter have always been in the business of crafting complete albums to be listened to from start to finish however, and similarly, Microcastle ebbs and flows naturally, with the record's middle section dissolving into near nothingness. This is where Cox's desire to strip songs to there bare essentials comes to fullest fruition. Following the eerie "Little Kids" and the dynamic title track, comes a three song stretch of songs that average just over minute in length. "Calvary Scars", another of Cox's examinations of religion in adolescent society, begins this transition, segueing into the barely-there duo of "Green Jacket" and the muted piano keys of "Activa". Judging by recent live performances though, this concision was a conscious decision by the band, as these songs weren't always so short - each one in fact has been stretched to much greater lengths on various demos and radio sessions.
This is just the calm before the proverbial storm however, as the lulling quietude of record's first side gives way to a fuller, more fleshed out 2nd side, beginning with the epic "Nothing Ever Happened". Where Cryptograms saw Deerhunter mining 80s psych and noise rock by the likes of Spacemen 3 and Sonic Youth, Microcastle updates these sound with their 90s counterpoints, with songs such as "Nothing Ever Happened" sounding very close to Goo-era Sonic Youth, and in some cases even early Breeders. This is certainly new territory, and not just for the band, but for Kranky, who have never released anything quite so rock oriented into their predominantly drone-based catalog.
From there, Microcastle stretches it's legs even further, with "Save By Old Times" ranking as the record's most experimental moment, although a vocal collage by Cole Alexander of the Black Lips doesn't register so much as "out there" as slightly out of place. Cox's new found optimism really elevates the song though, and as he sings the titular refrain, it becomes clear that Deerhunter are a continually evolving beast, never content to rehash old ideas or play it safe, no matter how much more listenable Microcastle is as a whole.
And so, as it stands, I wouldn't even say Microscastle is a step toward accessibility so much as another unique facet of the band. The fact that these songs are more direct and approachable says nothing of the band's motives or increased visibility following Cryptograms. It could also be attributed to the loss of original guitarist Colin Mee (whose replacement, Whitney Petty, does not appear here), although more probably, Microcastle is just the next step in Deerhunter’s progression as one of modern underground music's most creatively restless bands. The impossibly gorgeous closing duo of "Neither of Us, Uncertainly" (again with the vocals by Pundt) and "Twilight At Carbon Lake" speak to their constantly rebuilding creative energy most directly, with the disorienting panning guitar effects of the former shielding a lovely melody, while the layered shoegaze climax of the latter ends the record with it's most triumphant and cacophonous swirl of noise.
Microcastle is a very different, yet nearly as rewarding a listen as the amorphous and slow-growing Cryptograms. It may even attract a new legion of fans that will cling to a few songs and disregard the band's more avant tendencies. Of course, this problem faces many a great band, yet there is no doubt that Deerhunter are more than equipped to persevere the attention, and Microcastle is just the third in what is looking to be a long and fervently respectable career for the band. The fact that it's also one of the great records of the year so far is almost beside the point. Deerhunter are a bastion of hope in these indie-infiltrated times, and as one of the few pure independents currently going, these guys (and now girl) are something to truly hang your hopes on.
Note: Microcastle is currently available via iTunes, with a physical release due in October. The physical release comes with a companion disc entitled Weird Era Cont., and Stereo Sanctity will review this disc when it becomes available.
Update: Read Stereo Sanctity's Review of Weird Era Cont. Here
Highlights: "Agoraphobia", "Never Stops", "Nothing Ever Happened", "Neither of Us, Uncertainly", "Twilight At Carbon Lake"