Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Atlas Sound - Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See but Cannot Feel

Released in February of 2008, Atlas Sound's debut album Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel one-ups the success of lead singer Bradford Cox's other band Deerhunter, a band who racked up accolades and enjoyed increasing popularity in 2007 with Cryptograms, the Flourescent Grey EP, and numerous festival appearances. Cox had been talking up his side project for a while, and so I looked forward to this coming out. Somehow I knew it would be worth hearing when I read an interview with Cox and he started going off about how terrible the majority of bands are in the music scene. There are few greater consolations to the pain this life offers than seeing a person like Cox dimiss the mediocrity surrounding him. It is life-affirming to see someone so unapologetically pissed off about the due being given certain undeserving others.

"A Ghost Story" is easily the creepiest song on the album, very powerful aesthetically, gets you into the mood of the album. If anyone thinks this song is cute or making too big of a deal about itself, I urge you to listen to it in the dark, with no lights on at night, and see if you don't start feeling like freaking out because a ghost is going to emerge from your closet.

"Recent Bedroom" opens up the "proper" album, as the first track acts as more of a "found object" sound collage. Immediately, you notice that Cox is going to sing very differently on Atlas Sound than on Deerhunter. Gone is the rapid, throaty, yelping and here is the grandiose, impossibly slow, highest-pitched, most angelic, comforting style to match any other current performer including Thom Yorke. The lyrics are very simple, I could practically write all the lyrics for the album in a paragraph (except for "River Card"): I walked outside/I could not cry/I don't know why. It's apparently about seeing a dying relative and not knowing how it makes you feel that it's not making you cry. Maybe it's a more complex sentiment than that but I like the ambiguity of emotion.

"River Card" is apparently based on a short story about falling in love with one's own reflection in a river. Cox intones how badly in love he is with this person that is actually only a reflected image, but he realizes that if he tried to throw himself into said cherished object he would only be drowned. It's a powerful statement.

"Quarantined" is apparently about how Cox spent weeks/months in a hospital having various surgeries performed on him and how alone he felt being away from everyone he knew. This is the first really weird song on the album, and you will know what I mean when you hear Cox sing, "Quarantined" for the first time: "Quar-an-tined/and kept/so far away/from my friends" but as weird as the pronunciation is, by its end the song has stretched into the kind of lilting sound aesthetic that Cox has carried throughout the entire album. He talked about how obsessed he was with the My Bloody Valentine album Loveless and how he would listen to it over and over, trying to understand how that band had pulled such ethereal sounds from their instruments and effects gadgets. Now, that album very famously was very expensive to make (most expensive indie rock album of all time, maybe?) topping out over a million dollars. It appears that Cox has made most of these recordings under rather bare circumstances, making his accomplishment all the more impressive.

The sound that enters in "Quarantined," a sort of melodic humming in the highest registers of pitch with an atmospheric glow, reappears in "On Guard," which is a song you can listen to and not even realize you are listening to it, like a bunch of songs on Cryptograms that are instrumental. Actually, it is easier to listen to "Winter Vacation" and think you are still listening to "On Guard," so similar as they sound to each other and so seamlessly do they blend together into one. However, "Cold as Ice" asserts itself in the mix next. This song is apparently (and this whole album, in a way is) about unrequited love, how you can be so close to one person and so in love with everything they do and how they can act as if everything's totally normal and you're just their friend and not someone who wants to be their lover...However such songs never reveal their meaning so clearly. The lyrics are left minimal and vague, which only serves to elevate them in the mind of the listener.

"Scraping Past" is the second weirdly-pronounced song after "Quarantined" and its ending does not enter into the soaring heights of that other black sheep of a song. Instead, it offers the most catharsis of any song on the album, Cox weirdly pronouncing "Scraping past" over and over, paying particular attention to the sound of every letter as it pertains to each word. "Small Horror" introduces the re-surfacing of the sound echo that carries the album, and is a rather minimalistic song, but serves as an appropriate taking off point for the final stunning 1/3 of the album.

"Ready, Set, Glow," an instrumental, minimalist, serves its purpose well. "Bite Marks" opens up with a sound that comes straight out of Loveless, I swear, and may be the closest thing to a misstep on the album It is not a bad song, but the meaning is difficult to decipher, and its bassline makes it sound as if it almost wants to be a pop song, but then it sounds so sad. I don't skip it anyways because I'm very concerned about upsetting the flow of the album. "After Class" is another instrumental that is probably slightly more interesting than "Ready, Set, Glow" but serves an even greater purpose.

"Ativan" is the last "song" on the album (the title track, another instrumental, closes it out) and, as I told a friend at the show we saw after they played it, the best song on the album. It is perhaps worth noting that the first time I listened to this album, I laid down to go to bed around "Small Horror" and I could not help but think about how amazing the album was as I tried to sleep, how remarkably good the songs were, how I could already tell it was a classic, timeless statement of a record, and how the ending was one of the best endings I had heard of an album in a long, long time. Now, after listening to "Ativan" dozens of times, it is not as special to me as it once was. But the first time I heard it I could not believe it was so good.

Apparently it is a song about anti-depressant drugs that Cox had been taking recently which have an addictive quality (I believe). The song is about sleeping until you throw up, or feel drunk, sleeping while the intended target of the song goes out to have "lunch with a girl who has hair as soft as baby's breath...lunch with a girl that takes time to listen to every word you utter," quite probably the most achingly sung lines on the album, and potentially the most heartbreaking. Regardless, LTBLTWCSBCF ends with the title-track instrumental, content with whimpering out the remainder of its energy on some far away sounding distorted guitar sounds.

I may have been exagerrating when I said that Random Spirit Lover might have been better than OK Computer, and people thought I was crazy when I said that, so I will not say that Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See but Cannot Feel is better than Loveless, but I will say that it tries damn hard to be. Unless some truly amazing work is released this year, Atlas Sound's debut deserves to be near the top of the year end best of 2008 lists. Unfortunately, I would imagine that most will not remember it by then. Indeed, it seems most don't even remember it now, even though it only came out a couple of months ago.

I went nuts when it came out and listened to it many times in a row and I went to see their show at the Echo in L.A. and they played most of the songs from the album and the only one that was different was "Ativan," which had been turned into a loud shoegaze song. If I hadn't been so afraid of coming off the wrong way, I could have interviewed Bradford Cox that night (I saw him outside, but he was already talking voluminously to someone so I didn't interrupt) and pulled together much more personal insight into this album review. But I believe I have done a good enough job.

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