No Age Rides the Zeitgeist
The Vampire Weekend of the second quarter
Matthew Fluxblog posted an interesting piece today about No Age, the LA dreampunk duo currently basking in the sort of critical adoration usually reserved for shitty Animal Collective descendants. Matthew's point resonates for me: No Age is just now releasing its first proper album, and they're maybe still figuring out who they are as a band; these immediate critical hosannas aren't going to help them get there any faster. Even on a day when Nine Inch Nails have suddenly dropped a late Easter present of a surprise free album, No Age have completely dominated internet music-chatter. Matthew's post might, in fact, be the first ambivalent critical reaction I've seen to anything No Age-related. Full disclosure blah blah blah, but Pitchfork today gave Nouns its highest numerically-rated review of 2008 thus far, and even the cranks over at Decibel are on board. They're playing another giant outdoor festival just about every weekend this summer, and half the nightly patrons at the Smell, the LA DIY venue they've come to embody, are probably journalists honing trend-pieces at this point. This band is loved, and I can mostly understand why.
Because they bury their weirdly mannered spazz-punk anthems under so many layers of fuzz-pedal effects and tape-hiss and because they space their ragers out with prettily washed-out ambient drone-pieces, No Age add an element of mysterious drift to what would otherwise be fairly meat-and-potatoes post-hardcore. They're a basement-show band, something their anarchic live shows certainly bare out, but they have a way of staying just out of reach on record. Basically, they've found a way to turn tinny cheap-ass recording techniques into an immersive experience. Even as their cymbal-spashes sound like static, their guitar-fuzz, muffled as it is, takes on an almost luxuriantly pillowy diffuseness. Their guitar riffs are like ships drifting through fog a few hundred yards away; you know what they are, and you can almost make them out, but you can never quite tell where nothingness ends and their edges begin. The vocals, meanwhile, are on some total early Michael Stipe shit, so garbled and buried in the mix that I can only pick out the odd definitive phrase here and there. Since their style is so fuzzy and undefined, they're a really fun band to play spot-the-reference with, and you know how much we critics love doing that.
I've listened to Nouns at least once a day since I got the advance, partly because I want to see what my peers are getting so amped about and partly because the album promises its own unlockable mysteries. It's a warm, comforting record, hooky but not overbearingly so, and the band stays away from the militaristic compression techniques that render so many new records impossible to keep on repeat. But that elusiveness that makes them intriguing also keeps me from getting all the way into the record, from feeling it on a visceral level. In the band's buried vocals and distancing techniques, Matthew Fluxblog hears "cowardice," "a sort of passive-aggressive, ethereal blankness." I can't really ride with Matthew on that point; if anything, it's refreshing to hear a band applying punk-rock giddiness to the floaty, vaporous reverb-pop that's been slowly taking over indie-rock over the last few years. But it's also little wonder that my favorite No Age song by a pretty serious margin is "Everybody's Down," from the 2007 EP collection Weirdo Rippers; it's the only song I can name where the band keeps a discernible riff front and center for the whole two minutes the song is playing.
I'm all for any band who can push the sloppy, chaotic basement-show aesthetic back into an indie-rock universe that's spent at least the past decade trying to forget it ever existed, and I'd certainly rather see No Age getting this love than another shitty Animal Collective descendant. But I wish my reasons for liking No Age didn't tend so often toward the extramusical. Hopefully, this wave of enthusiasm will continue beyond No Age, beyond even their LA contemporaries, and toward the unheard throngs of basement-show dwellers who don't live in coastal media-centers. I wouldn't bet money on that happening, though. At CMJ last year, I saw No Age play a fun spazzout of a show. The next day, though, I saw another Smell band, the terrifyingly fierce all-female skronk-rock quintet Mika Miko, and they pretty much annihilated No Age from my memory. Nobody's talking about Mika Miko today.
Voice review: Zach Baron on No Age's Weirdo Rippers