Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Fur-- Witches

(Rating: 3of 5)

It seems that things have been working out quite nicely for Bryce Isbell as of late. After spending a couple of years moving away from his roots with Matthew and the Arrogant Sea and quietly developing his craft as an electronic musician via countless self released albums that probably didn't garner much of an audience beyond friends and acquaintances, Isbell recently signed on with Lefse Records subsidiary Waaga under the moniker Fur, and in the process has managed to attract the attention of Pitchfork, Gorilla vs Bear, 20 Jazz Funk Greats and other notable websites, thanks in no small part to his perfectly timed collaboration with newly minted indie celeb Alan Palomo. Now poised to begin reaching an audience outside of North Texas for the first time, Isbell has delivered Witches, a difficult to classify yet mostly accessible full length record that represents a notable leap forward for Isbell as an artist, although not in the manner that one might have assumed based on the backstory.

A lot of what you'll probably read and hear about this record will lead you to believe that its somehow a part of the nebulous "glo-fi" or "chill wave" movement, and in a limited sense this notion is accurate-- the much noted collaborations with Alan Palomo and Coyote Clean Up, the dreamy, vaguely dancey production values, the label's own association with the genre-- all of it seems to indicate at first glance that Isbell's work as Fur should be compared side by side with that of Washed Out, Neon Indian and Memory Tapes, and it wouldn't be entirely off base to do so given the personal tie-ins and vague stylistic similarities between the three. For Fur's label, this PR narrative might be beneficial from a short-term business perspective, but just as most artists despise being packaged as part of any "scene," particularly one birthed entirely by music critics, so too should labels be weary of allowing their groups to be pigeonholed into temporarily lucrative genres that may or may not provide such benefits as "having your song in a car commerical" and "appearing on Jimmy Fallon," because at the end of the day, this album's strengths lie in being something other than the latest entry in yet another soon to be forgotten fad, even if lazy musical criticism might ensure that it ultimately suffers that fate anyway.

Of course, this isn't to say that Witches is somehow superior to the debuts from Neon Indian or Memory Tapes, because it isn't. However, these comparisons end up amounting to little more than apples and oranges at the end of the day, because in spite of the surface level similarities in recording techniques and the general haziness of the three works as a whole, Witches is clearly constructed out of completely different material than those records (just as the other two are quite different from one another as well), and its this quality that makes this record worth considering on its own merits.

Almost right from the onset, knowledgeable fans of European electronic music will likely be compelled to recall early 90's Artificial Intelligence era Warp Records material and groups such as The Orb, while "indie" rockers might spot the significant Boards of Canada influence that pervades throughout. For the first half of the record, Isbell's backwards glances to these sources serve as the building blocks for much of what is going on, although it certainly isn't a paint-by-numbers recreation, and thankfully so. Things get started with a striking Klaus Nomi sample on opener "Faces," and although one can tell that Isbell has certainly allowed such things to enter into his frame of artistic reference, the track, despite being quite solid, serves as a false start for the record as whole considering that its clarity and boldness stand almost polar opposite of what Isbell attempts to do on the rest of the album's high points-- namely, to craft textures and play with moods.

A bit later, "Friends of Friends" truly sets the scene with stabbing, minimal beats that sound like a more organic and far less dance driven version of something that could be found on an early Luomo recording coupled with swirling, pulsating white noise and treated sampled vocals that give the track a loose, psychedelic feel that ends up serving as one of the more adventurous and rewarding moments to be found throughout. Directly following are the two standouts "Lackadaisical" and "Black Castles," with the former featuring what is easily the record's most memorable refrain, reminiscent of some strange mix between Enigma's "Sadness, Part 1" and the music from those Time Life "Mysteries of the Unknown" commercials (in a good way), while the latter, a collaboration with Neon Indian's Alan Palomo, provides the record's most overall accessible moment with a beat driven backdrop and icy, dreamy layers of synth that compliment the track's build up-break down-build up structure quite effectively, resulting in a nearly danceable downtempo track that has a lot more in common with the rest of the material on this record than with anything Neon Indian has released.

Elsewhere, Isbell successfully attempts a more straight up and pop leaning lo-fi take on early 90's ambient techno on "Haunted," takes an ill advised dubstep influenced detour on "Hidden," gets into some dizzying, Autechre influenced beats to mostly acceptable effect on "Blood," and dabbles in some shimmering, post-techno Tangerine Dream-like ambient synths on "Sleep."

The genre hopping on the record's latter half might seem a bit confusing at first, but in and of itself its not an issue-- groups as diverse as Yo La Tengo and LCD Soundsystem have built careers out of self conscious record geek nods to genre, and Isbell for the most part seems to have the artistic sensibility and grasp of history to try new (old) things and do them fairly well. However, there are several clear missteps throughout, such as meandering closer "Cheer Fool," and the sounds good on paper but falls flat on the dance floor "Tunnels", but even more than that, the all over the place feel of the album's second half erases much of the core and continuity of Witches' noticeably stronger first half, leaving the listener to feel that Isbell might have been slightly less than sure of what he wanted to do and where he wanted to take his sound, thus slowing the early momentum and resulting in a record that often feels more like a mix tape or a collection of singles than an actual full length record. Again, this isn't an inherently negative quality, but its one that certainly lessens the potency of Witches' strongest moments.

This kind of stylistic overreaching is an understandable mistake that often plagues young ambitious musicians, and the most compelling stretches on Witches more or less make up for a lot of these shortcomings. In fact, even the stumbles are at least a positive indication that Isbell is willing to take chances with his work, and many of them might have ended up being more effective within the context of a different record, even if a few just simply miss the mark.

Thankfully, Bryce Isbell has not jumped on a bandwagon here-- there is little to nothing on Witches that bares any audible resemblance to the psychedelic bedroom dance pop of Neon Indian or the house influenced lo-fi of Memory Tapes other than slight, passing moments, and the starting point of Isbell's musical influences is really quite different from the start. Instead of coming off as an also-ran glo-fi record, Fur's debut is a mostly effective study of electronic genres, complete with all of positives and negatives that often come with such an endeavor. It's less than earth shattering to be sure, but Witches indicates that Bryce Isbell has the capacity to do some interesting things, and it certainly requires that we all keep our eyes on what he attempts to do next.

(download Fur's release with Coyote Clean Up for free here)


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