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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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