August 24, 2011

Test Spins: Washed Out

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When James Murphy quipped about “borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties” on LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge,” he was commenting on the absurdity of people making bands that copped the styles and sounds of generations that they had never been there to experience. This concept of “borrowed nostalgia,” though, rests very comfortably on the shoulders of chillwave figurehead Ernest Greene, erstwhile known as Washed Out.

A genre dominated by twentysomethings who only spent a brief part of their childhoods in the eighties, chillwave mixes enveloping synths, hi-hat heavy rhythms and reverb-drenched vocals create something that falls in the middle section of a Venn diagram whose circles are labeled “conventional synthpop,” “shoegaze” and “Boards of Canada.”

Greene contributed his definitive chillwave release after losing his job and moving back home with his parents in Perry, Georgia (the EP was cheekily entitled Life of Leisure). While lo-fi by circumstance, its hazy rendering of eighties sounds lend it an almost home- video quality, where old memories are sepia-toned and faded but still vibrant despite their vagueness.

Following the (inevitable) critical backlash against chillwave, though, Greene does not stray far from his winning formula: Within and Without is a more polished, refined and purposefully hazy offering than Leisure and, as the sultry cover suggests, it is obsessed with romance and longing. Opening track “Eyes Be Closed” chugs along patiently, building up and stripping away sounds but never sounding cluttered or overwrought; a sense of space is established by thunderous but measured drum fills before every chorus. “Amor Fati” overflows with romantic bouncing synths and “Far Away” mixes whispered vocals, echoing bells and militaristic drums to a simmering chorus that melts away into a delectable string section before the drums begin pounding away again.

But what one man calls subtlety another calls sameness. And Within and Without rarely wanders from the well-trodden path of stoned hipster make-out jams, a path that gets tiresome when the same cartoonishly reverberating drums and synths are used throughout. While an album of slowed down beats, soothing voices and whooshing synthesizers might be an effective soundtrack for a study session or a ganja-accompanied post-game, it can grow stale amongst livelier company. Still, the sounds are beautiful and Greene’s voice can reach Chris Martin levels of soothing when he feels like it. Put it in as your late evening soundtrack and let Within and Without’s “borrowed nostalgia” lull you to sleep.

Original Author: James Rainis