A discussion on big American indie music (though not indie labels, of course) these days would probably, like it or not, need to include certain bands. Arcade Fire have survived the fad and are soundly epic; MGMT have been huge, but are battling second album backlash; and Animal Collective have spent a long time evolving their noise-meets-campfire-scat into an ever populist, credible, offering. Animal Collective’s sounds have perhaps influenced all the other above acts.
It’s in some ways a shame that Animal Collective were the ones who, for all their undeniable work and invention, took American folk and exploded it, for they started, in part, a resurgence of singer-songwriters. If this had been Dreamend grabbing the indie headlines instead, we’d have singer-songwriters as noise-obsessed Brian Wilsons in the broadsheets instead of pastoral troubadours, which would arguably be considerably more exciting.
This is not Animal Collective’s fault, but it is a tragedy that the 10-minute anthem, An Admission – the closing track of Dreamend’s So I Ate Myself, Bite By Bite – hasn’t been blasted into the consciousness of a generation in the same way Merriweather Post Pavilion grabbed critical acclaim. For this is one of 2010’s most exciting tracks. It starts with nothing but a lonely drumbeat and vocal mantra before naturally and seamlessly building into a storm of electronics, violins and a sense of panic and eventually collapsing into thick, rewarding noise. As a track it catapults through a series of American sounds that are invigorating, anthemic and iconic. This is no mean feat, even at 10 minutes.
Dreamend is a one-man band, that one man being Ryan Gravesend, a master of music as texture. The album opens with Pink Clouds In The Woods and Gravesend sets up a trap of pure mush. Bonfire crackles and birdsong lay under a xylophone and rasped piano strings; it honks of twee. Then brushed snare hits thrash in and it all turns into something fluid and seductive; banjos chime and Gravesend’s vocals mistily blend with a soaring slide guitar, his words indecipherable. It’s woozy and lovely, like a collective jam between Japancakes and Elephant Six. It’s eccentric and it feels dangerously unstable, able to flitter into another direction at any minute.
As the bassist/guitarist in Black Moth Super Rainbow and with his own label having put out artists that have stemmed from Slowdive and Mojave 3, it then clicks that Gravesend’s love is to thicken music unexpectedly. Yet his instinct seems to be to use this shoegaze facet only for its drones. Instruments aren’t bleached beyond recognition into pure texture; their natural sounds are very much at the front of everything here. Banjos are used as reverse reverb by striking the same note unceasingly as an echo, and other melodies dance around to provide speed, motion and dramatic harmony. It’s a treat to hear the tangle of shoegaze unpicked.
The formula is spellbinding but it slips occasionally. Moments have that standard part-shouted campfire folk voice (as per the first half of A Thought). In a way, they’re needed to enhance the twists, the leap of a piano note to a guitar chord as big as an orchestra (as per the second half of A Thought). It’s disorientating in the speed with which this works, making So I Ate Myself, Bite By Bite powerful and Dreamend the most twisted, beguiling take on the singer-songwriter set-up yet.