It’s a common theme in pop that groups of like-minded artists all seem to emerge at once; specific enclaves of creative artistry all coalescing around one geographical area with every individual or group feeding off one another. In terms of idiosyncratic, primitive synth pop, a febrile group of arty types have emerged from the Canadian hubs of Montreal and Toronto in the past few years, led by the likes of Grimes and Purity Ring as well as the more introspective Majical Cloudz.
Toronto born and now Montreal resident Airick Woodhead, who records under the name Doldrums, has been operating within this milieu for a few years, but is only now releasing his debut album Lesser Evil. It is a work that offers a fair indication of the kind of disarming oblique pop sound that this part of the world has made a speciality.
Throughout listening to Lesser Evil, it’s striking how everything sounds not quite right about it. It is a deeply strange and odd album. There are pop hooks aplenty but they are often accompanied by dissonant noise and crushing beats. Woodhead has a propensity to overload his songs with all manner of sonic disorder. In the hands of a more conventional producer, a song like Anomaly would be a sweet and pleasant synth pop record. Instead, Woodhead gives it an abrasive quality, pulverised by chunky beats and a peculiar robotic vocal. It leaves you a bit discombobulated but enraptured at the same time.
There is a sometimes jarring battle between severe and impenetrable brutal beats and lilting dream pop lullabies that give the record a disjointed feel. Songs like Sunrise, with its nicely warped calypso beat, offer a far more obviously palatable sound compared to the frenetic hyper aggressive electro of She Is The Wave. The best moments on the album are when the sensory beating is pared down and stripped back in favour of a more beatific reflection.
The second half of the album indulges in Woodhead’s more dreamy melancholic side. Holographic Sandcastles sounds as diaphanous and dream like as its title suggests, Woodhead’s faint and slight voice delivering lines suggestive of a beautiful utopia: “Water’s coming streaming down.”
Elsewhere, a string of fairly insipid, wispy tracks that feel slight and underdeveloped hamstrings the album. In contrast with the maximalist crash of the more vibrant tracks, they feel horribly exposed. The beguiling penultimate track Lost In Everyone is infinitely better. If there is a defining theme to Woodhead’s work beyond messing with sounds and rhythms then it is the creation of a fantasy like dream state, principally informed by sci-fi. On Lost In Everyone, he creates an enveloping world of wonder; the sense of askewed idiosyncrasy is heightened by a stretched vocal that makes it sound as if the words were being delivered while being slowly submerged in an air locked water tank.
For all the use of outré sounds and avant pop experimentalism, Lesser Evils is paradoxically at it is most compelling at its most stripped back. Final track Painted Black sees Woodhead’s untreated natural voice to the fore free from any sort of sonic manipulation. His voice is a minor thing of wonder. It’s instructive that perhaps keeping it simple can be distinctly weirder and have the same desired affect.
Lesser Evil is an album that is a bit too cluttered and patchy to stand out as a classic debut. However, it does illustrate that Airick Woodhead is an artist capable of making truly compelling and disorienting electronic pop comparable with any of the leading lights from a fascinating scene.