September 1, 2015

Test Spin: Katie Dey — asdfasdf

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My dad’s a plumber, so he loves water gadgets. That’s why my showerhead at home has built in speakers, the existence of which gives me the right to aver that the best way to listen to the freshman E.P. of Orchid Tapes’ Katie Dey is naked, absolutely alone, teeming with thoughts and drenched from above in both water and the stilting incoherence of an artist who has everything in the world to say but no conceivable way to say it.

That incoherence is at the record’s forefront before you even start listening to it, right in the title: asdfasdf. In the computer age, those letters have come to represent the frustrated wordlessness or blase technological apathy that forces someone who’s been sitting and staring at their blank word document for hours to give up their muse and smack their keyboard in despair. They stand for everything that you want to say but can’t when you’re wringing your fingers above your keyboard at three in the morning. And while the title summons the frustration that goes along with unwanted technological silence, its music reaches somewhere deeper: From the garbled mouth-noises (because they sure as hell aren’t words) of the very first track, “don’t be scared,” to the heavenly, breathy vocal undercurrent of “you gotta get up to get up,” the closer, asdfasdf is defined by Dey’s tentative scratching at the surface of language and communication.

Vocally, “don’t be scared” is populated by sounds and stutters that might be words, but are tweaked to the point of uselessness by scratchy, submerging effects. It’s follower, “fear o the dark,” creeps a little bit closer to understandability (because here the syllables are actually discernible) but beyond the titular phrase crawling to the surface of audibility once or twice, it’s still completely mute, verbally. “unkillable” gives us the most absorbable words, but if anything they just lend to the record’s impregnability rather than illuminate its message: “Poetry / Suck the blood from my feet / You are my favorite leech.” The next few tracks cycle through a series of electric grumbles, lugubrious chirps and gems of vocoded opacity, all the while keeping us squarely in the dark. But while each of the songs seems impenetrable and ununderstable when standing alone, taken together they coalesce into something much more substantial. Even though Dey is saying absolutely nothing in a literal sense, her blips, screeches, grumbles and slivers of comprehensibility all come to serve as these brilliant little reflective shards of emotion.

Take the fifth track, “all on you.” If you listen to it while walking through the woods on a sunny day, clutching some beautiful person around the waist, it’s going to sound like Dey is humming along to your cadence about how great it feels to be in love. If you listen to it at four in the morning with your bed feeling like nails and your eyes glossed over from insomnia and questionable decisions, it’s going to feel like an ode to loneliness. If you listen to it in the shower at the beginning of another day that’s already looking like it’s ready to drag on ineluctably into the past and there’s nothing you can do to stop it mainly because you’ve been waiting for that text of tenuous assurance for three days and you’re just coming to terms with the fact that it isn’t going to come, it’s going to end up juicing tears out of your eyes that’ll simply wash down the drain with the rest of the water; but at least Katie Dey knows how you feel.

And all that is just from the vocals. Beneath — and often intertwined with — them slithers a slew of electronic beeps, electrified acoustic niceties, soaring synths, drum machines and even the post-industrial rumbling dissonance of computers freaking out. As all of these coagulate into what roughly makes up Dey’s unpinpointable “sound,” they create something of a sonic pool in which her vocals can (and do) wade freely. At times her voice swoops and burbles above the instruments, propelled by and sundered from their vibrant murkiness. At times it flows along with them, almost indiscernible, in its alterations, from a sliding pulsation or atmospheric chime. Sometimes (as in “you gotta get up to get up”) it completely cedes to the whim of the instruments, uncovering itself for moments at a time to show that it’s still breathing. In all of the forms it takes, however, there are two constants about Dey’s sound that stand strong throughout the record: an arcane rhythm and a tacit commitment to the technological opacity of its title, asdfasdf.

On the first front, it’s impossible to listen to this record without subconsciously realizing that every track has a strangely driving beat. Your foot will tap and your head will bob, but when you try to put your finger on what part of the song exactly is making you move, your ears and brain will get lost in the ocean of sounds that Dey invokes on any given track; “you gotta get up to get up,” with its hip-hop beat buried under layers of disorientingly arrhythmic keyboard tapping and carefree drones, is the best example.

On the latter front, though, is the most intriguing and important part about Dey’s first record. Like its title and like its vocals, the instrumental sounds on asdfasdf are these intrinsically meaningless, ultrapersonal, unattainable projections that paradoxically say nothing while conveying an entire gamut of thoughts and feelings. They’re coruscating and murky, vivid and reserved, painfully inviting and damningly repulsive. They lend a sound to Dey’s electrified ramblings, a sound that’s equal parts confused, reflective, impossible and brilliant. A sound like laying in bed in a dark room on a sunny day with the most beautiful computer in the world who’s just learning how to use language. This record is the most beautiful malfunction of a human being and all of her reason, scored to the most beautiful malfunction of a computer struggling to maintain a rhythm, a modicum of sense. It’s a record that, in a sense, can either make you stare at the sun in absolute jollity while realizing that your life is going to end someday, or stand catatonic in the shower cursing all your fleeting problems and emotions while realizing that there are slivers of beauty in absolutely everything in this world, especially asdfasdf.