Monday, June 1, 2009

Album: Blank Dogs - Under and Under

Under and Under
Album: Under and Under
In the Red
Rating: ******** (8/10)

My last experience with Blank Dogs was being underwhelmed by their performance at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in March. Of the ultra-lo-fi movement of the last year or so, Blank Dogs don’t quite equal the very best of the pack – Woods, Wavves, Crystal Stilts and a few others – but they definitely aren’t at the bottom of the pile either. The ranking among this crowd comes down to songwriting, and while Blank Dogs don’t have nearly the gift of a band like Woods, they do have some pretty nice tunes.

Blank Dogs is the solo project of Mike Sniper, a purposefully enigmatic figure who has been forced to remove his mask (literally and figuratively) by recent success. His new album, Under and Under, comes out tomorrow, and if you’re into little pop songs that are completely obliterated by distortion, I’d have to recommend picking up a copy.

Where Blank Dogs stray from the typical lo-fi template is in the band’s obvious nods to the music of the early 80’s. Their songs are styled after British post-punk (e.g. the Joy Division-esque "L Machine" and "Open Shut"), early synthesizer-based new wave ("Falling Back"), and even goth itself ("Face Watching"). It’s a simple idea, but pretty smart – to my knowledge, translating these styles to lo-fi has yet to be done. By taking songwriting cues and beats from the 80’s, but entirely subverting the era’s emphasis on clarity and polish, Under and Under deserves some distinction.

The album opens up with a trio of strong tracks: the heavy pop of "No Compass" followed by a tense, driving song called "L Machine" and the faintly western "Night Night." The album’s key centerpiece is "Setting Fire to Your House, " a dark, synth-heavy song with creeping, creepy vocals that somehow get more disturbing as they shift from minor key to major, and from understated verse to catchy chorus.

Other highlights include "Falling Back," which manages to withdraw even further into the fuzz than the rest of the album, and "Tin Birds," whose sloppy hooks provide a glimmer of brightness in the midst of an overwhelmingly dark album. And towards the end of the record, the massive gothic soundscapes of “Face Watching” do Robert Smith proud.

However, at fifteen songs, the album feels a little padded. I’m generally a fan of long albums, but only if the material is consistently album-worthy. There aren’t actually any bad songs on Under and Under, but some of tracks in the second two thirds of the album seem just like less-good versions of ideas already expressed. Ultimately, these songs only dilute the album’s quality and make it sound "samey, " when in fact, there’s plenty of diversity here to support a more tailored LP.

Ultimately, Under and Under is a well-conceived and brilliantly executed album, and its successes more than compensate for its flaws. Taken as a whole, it’s not the best record ever, but it’s got more than enough truly great songs to earn my very discriminating respect. And to make me hope that Sniper is just getting started.


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