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Best Albums of 2011 Series: “Elephants at the Door,” Dumbo Gets Mad

9th December


Read nearly anything about Elephants at the Door by Dumbo Gets Mad—the nom de plume adopted by a twenty-something kid out of Northern Italy whose dreamy eyes and killer ‘stache bring to mind some younger, hipper understudy of Daniel Day Lewis in There Will be Blood—and you almost certainly will come across the following descriptive: psychedelic. Let’s be clear, Elephants at the Door is a terrific record deserving of much of the praise lavished upon it since “Plumy Tale” blew the fuse box of the music blogosphere last year. But to slap it with the “psychedelic” tag both undermines and mischaracterizes its achievement.

The term “psychedelic” is tossed around so frequently these days it’s become about as helpful a way of describing a band’s sound as “indie.” Anyone who has listened to After Bathing at Baxter’s, Skip Spence’s brilliant Oar, or even “Jugband Blues”—the lone Syd Barrett track on Pink Floyd’s 1968 sophomore effort, A Saucerful of Secrets—knows that genuine psychedelia is not something you bob your head to in your Prius on the way to the wheat grass bar. It’s something you hear before shouting “what the #@*% was that?” and looking funny at the friend who played it for you after lighting another roach.

 

Even some of the most deliberate stabs at psychedelia that emerged from the era in which the sound was invented—records likePet Sounds or Sgt. Peppers—still indulge the abandon, whimsy and discord that comprise the fundament of true psychedelia. What we have in Elephants at the Door, on the other hand, is far more calculated than all that. That it nonetheless keeps the listener dazzled for the span of at least eight of its ten tight tracks is an accomplishment that cannot be overstated. Simply put, this is a pop record, and a damned good one. Albeit with elephant noises and a band name taken from the hallucination sequence in the Disney classic Dumbo.

Elephants wastes no time winning you over with its peculiar and warm-hearted charm. Sure, you swear you heard the opening track’s burst of birds and bubbles somewhere on the first MGMT record (Hint: you did). And OK, maybe “Plumy Tale’s” gorgeous organ riff sounds an awful lot like somebody slipped some Ambien into the cocktail that once brought The Caesars’ “Jerk it Out” to an iPod commercial near you. But so what? No record that boasts its influences as abundantly as this one is aiming for originality—and thank God for that, since most records that do are pretty much bound to suck.

Dumbo is not the guy who breaks the ground; he’s the guy who shows up after the ground’s been broken and plants the most amazing daffodils in the cracks left behind. “Ecclectic Prawn” channels Odelay-era Beck while “Why Try” plays like a Portishead track filtered through a Tindersticks song. The ghost of John Bonham haunts several tracks with throbbing drums straight out of “When the Levee Breaks,” and some distinctly Bowie-esque vocals erupt out of the frothing, intergalactic stew that is “Harmony.” With its dueling synthesizers laid over a low-fi feast of jangling guitars and cymbal-heavy drum machine beats, “Harmony” sounds as much at home on a record as it might be in the Labyrinthe Zone of Sonic the Hedgehog.

This is a record for those who stumbled late to the altar of The Flaming Lips upon hearing The Soft Bulletin, music for people who stuck with last year’s Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffitti record for long enough to recognize its brilliance. Elephants never comes quite as unhinged as either of those records; these songs are composed, tightly packed things that never stray far from their creator’s guiding hand. But Dumbo’s stated affection for Captain Beefheart and his ardent embrace of the “psychedelic” label—however imprecise it may be—suggests that more daring experiments may be on the way. If Elephants is any indication, whatever he comes up with next will be well worth the wait.

Oh, yeah, and you can download the whole thing for free–as long as you promise to Tweet about it first. Check it out here. And if you’re yet to hear the sick “mix tape” Dumbo Gets Mad put out, you owe it to yourself. Check it out over at Anthony Fantano’s blog, The Needle Drop.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

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Beck: Modern Guilt

28th June

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On Monday, June 9th, Beck decided to do what he always does in advance of a new album: hit the stage at the Echo in L.A. and play some crazy shit no one’s ever heard before. He continues to refer to these outings as “surprise” shows, but how much of the element of surprise Beck’s able to retain after pulling off the same thing nearly every year is probably up for debate. At this point, it’s about as surprising as that unspeakably hideous tie you gave your father this past Father’s Day (you know who you are.) In any event, Beck & Co. delivered the usual reworkings of older material–the culprit this time being tunes like Sea Change’s “Lost Cause,” dressing the song in what Stereogum calls “a My Bloody Valentin-ey fuzzed-up” sound. But the thing that made this latest “surprise” gig particularly remarkable was that Beck used it to unveil a new album which, as bits and pieces trickle down to youtube, myspace and iLike, sounds more and more like the next great Beck album: the Danger-Mouse produced Modern Guilt (out July 8th, his 38th birthday–yes, beck is 38. I know, I know. Guzzle down some Prozac with your coffee this morning and try to think about something else.)

Looking a lot like the exiled leader of some “back to the land” Hippie cult in the Santa Cruz mountains where the wife bakes loaves of macrobiotic bread inside the family tent as he guides the children through prayers to Demeter in the hope of a bountiful harvest, all Beck needed to complete a triumphant return to the original sin of rock ‘n roll that night was a dashiki, a flower in his hair, and a smoking fatty lodged in the head of his guitar . It’s easy to dismiss the whole get-up merely as Beck being the freaky mofo that he is, but when you listen to what’s available of the as-yet unreleased album on his MySpace Page, you quickly realize that there’s a reason he’s passing himself off as the ghost of Skip Spence these days (he did, after all, contribute a track to a Skip Spence tribute album back in ’99.)


Beck at the Echo: “Modern Guilt,” June 9th, 2008

Chemtrails,”one of the few tracks Beck’s teased the public with in advance of the album’s release, opens with Beck’s eerie whisper accompanied only by the hauntingly psychedelic siren of a keyboard before the whole song bursts into a funked-up shuffle of percussion and piano that exemplifies exactly the kind of aesthetic restraint we’d expect of a Danger Mouse production (an aesthetic he delivered with astonishing power on The Black Keys’ recent Attack and Release.) In a creative flourish that’s at once predictable and stirring, the whole thing is then thrown down the winding stairs of Beck’s imagination with an amped-up crescendo that is equal parts space-rock and funk, the musical equivalent of dinner at Neil Young’s house with Pink Floyd, Prince and the full line-up of Crazy Horse. It may well be the most interesting piece of music Beck’s produced since “Loser.”

Beck’s early work is brilliant because it documented the arrival of a relentless creative anxiety that had been absent from music since Elvis Costello put out My Aim is True in ’77. No one was making the kind of sound he served up with Odelay in 1996, but plenty followed suit, and that succession of imitators sent Beck on a prolonged and fascinating pursuit of another sound to call his own. never has that journey sounded so complete as it does now, as tracks like the great “Gamma Ray” reach for where he’s been as much as they arrive at where he wants to be. Like a gypsy who’s roamed the world for decades with a laundry bag of all he’s picked up along the way slung over his shoulder, “Gamma Ray” synthesizes every creative detour of Beck’s recording career, from Odelay’s “Devil’s Haircut” to that bizarre cover he did for a tribute album in the name of the aforementioned Skip Spence.


Beck’s Modern Guilt: A Preview

Modern Guilt is not so much a new album as it is a catalog of every album Beck’s ever done. It is “new” in the sense that these songs shadow every corner of Beck’s creative vision at once rather than lingering over a single passing indulgence, as steeped in the folkish flare of Mutations or Sea Change as it is in the sonic massiveness of Odelay or Midnite Vultures. The occasionally unlistenable eccentricities of The Information–a fascinating if unfocused project–are reigned in but never abandoned on Modern Guilt, a kind of grounded madness that may have made for Beck’s most accessible album in 12 years.