March 6, 2013

Test Spins: Youth Lagoon, Wondrous Bughouse

Print More

Like Syd Barrett with a laptop, Trevor Powers, under the Youth Lagoon moniker, creates deeply introspective music with a flair for the psychedelic. Debut album Year of Hibernation found Powers reflecting on themes of loneliness and the mundane whilst drenched in reverb. Deeply personal, Year of Hibernation was packed with specifics: posters on bedrooms walls, ’96 Buicks, smoking cigars on the Fourth of July — a collage of details from his life growing up in Boise, Idaho. For Powers, his records almost serve as his diaries. “Youth Lagoon is something so personal to me because writing music is how I sort my thoughts, as well as where I transfer my fears,” Powers explains. “I’m not a gifted speaker, so explaining things is difficult for me. But music always makes sense.”

On sophomore effort Wondrous Bughouse, Powers turns his attention from the life outside his head to the one inside it. Inspired by a fascination “with the human psyche and where the spiritual meets the physical world,” Wondrous Bughouse is the antithesis to the sleek electronics of “big deal” bands like Phoenix and The xx. Fitting to its name, this record explores electronic textures that are organic and gnarled; synthesizers bubble rather than shoot like lasers. Opener “Through Mind and Back” wallows in this aesthetic, sounding like a musical interpretation of the sounds you hear in nature: buzzing flies, gurgling brooks and cackling animals are all reinterpreted by Powers’ laptop.

However, this is not to say that Youth Lagoon is indulging in the messy compositional habits that plagued Animal Collective’s Centipede Hz. The noise experiments of “Through Mind and Back” give way to the infectiously catchy “Mute.” Powers’ vocals are almost a mirage: you catch talk of the devil and corpses, but any further attempts at decryption are enveloped by the dreamy soundscape of squealing synth arpeggios and distorted electronic moans. For all of Youth Lagoon’s perceived introspection, “Mute” shows that even the heady loners can craft a lighter-waving set finale if they just let loose.

The remainder of the record is bursting with innovative textures and sticky-sweet melodies. Powers’ compositional acumen has gotten to the point where he knows just what tweaks to make to his songs — whether he’s introducing new textures or merely lending a song punch by pushing the drums up in the mix, ala this album’s “Raspberry Cane” — in order to evoke an emotional response. “Pelican Man” runs through a dramatic chord change reminiscent of Dark Side of the Moon, escalating the stakes with hymnal harmonic motifs (open fifths and fourths are a great way to make your music sound otherworldly and choral) and a clanging dulcimer counterpoint. “Dropla” meditates on eternal life, assuring the listener that “you will never die,” while cinematic strings surge and introduce a subdued coda that provides a breath of fresh air after the mix becomes rather claustrophobic. “Attic Doctor” trades dreams for macabre whimsy, riding a lilting singsong melody as castanets skitter and the drums beat out a bizarre waltz.

“Raspberry Cane” is a late highlight whose Beatles-esque melody turns a somewhat morbid mantra — “Here’s to death: Drink on!” — into something you might actually toast to, if you’ve had one too many immediately following prelim season. That cognitive dissonance between Youth Lagoon’s woozily comforting songs and the somewhat dismal sentiments that inspire them encapsulate just what’s so intriguing about Wondrous Bughouse: It forces us to confront death not as this specter of evil and loss, but as a next chapter with boundless possibilities.

Original Author: James Rainis