Pop in a hard place

By NICK SYLVESTER  |  December 16, 2008

Granted, one beat in “Kokomo” sounds like a squeaky office chair tilting back and forth, and a woozier one reminds me of the sound of a jumping video-game character. In that regard, Black Dice can seem nonsensical. But then the wallops of bass come, the song grows supporting rhythms, and suddenly the squiggles and static coalesce into what can only be a pop song. Maybe it’s no coincidence that much of Bjorn Copeland’s visual art plays strict industrial design off freewheeling psychedelia, inviting the same kind of scavenger hunt you encounter when trying to find the folk-pop song buried behind the retro-futuristic bustle in “Scavenger.”

Load Blown borrows more readily from traditional pop sounds than any other Black Dice disc. (They’ve released four full-lengths since 2002.) I hear Motown and Afropop and Paul Simon in “Scavenger,” one of the few songs to feature vocals and something that sounds like a guitar. I hear reggae dub in “Bananas,” and in the tight rolls of “Manoman” I hear vocal hiccups and more video games. The chords to “Toka Toka” even hint at a recognizable chord progression — a standard and well-worn turn-around that dates back to the big-band era. Yet here Black Dice leave their mark on the progression: it is indisputably theirs, and theirs only.

As opposed to, say, their abstract-hardcore drone album Beaches and Canyons (DFA, 2002), there’s nothing remotely mystical about the sounds on Load Blown: what you hear is what you hear. It may not work for everybody, but I find it refreshing and honest. Black Dice’s friends and label affiliates Animal Collective went the other way — from blunt and primitive campfire songs early on to borderline shamanic spells that masquerade as cutesy indie rock. The last time the two bands toured together was in 2004, an occasion they celebrated with a limited tour-only 12-inch split called Wastered. Animal Collective became en vogue soon after; Black Dice, meanwhile, retreated from the spotlight, quietly finishing off their DFA Records contract with the underrated Broken Ear Record and two singles, 2005’s “Smiling Off” and 2006’s “Manoman.”

The alternative possibilities the two bands hinted at continue to play out among their friends in experimental-music circles. Growing, Deerhunter, No Age, and Soft Circle (with a former Black Dice drummer) all seem in debt to the drones of Beaches and Canyons. The sparse 2004 album Creature Comforts (DFA), on the other hand, fits the short-lived freak-folk moment. Beyond Animal Collective, Excepter are as close to Black Dice cosmic kin as any act has gotten, borrowing rambunctiously from electronic music and pop but maintaining a distinct sound and compositional style.

The question acts like Animal Collective and Black Dice raise is whether they’re attractive simply because they’re different. But even if that’s true, the norms Black Dice resist are significant and strong and worth resisting. Despite attempts to label it as such, Load Blown is neither anarchic nor experimental. It is pop music, twisted and contorted to a degree, but still full of hooks and melody. It makes me wonder what might happen if the television and music industries collapsed: how long would it take for people to unlearn what they’ve been conditioned to recognize as “pop” or as “entertainment”?

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