Whenever I read the words “New Zealand” in a music review or press kit I either think, “this must be some weird-ass indie-pop” (see the Clean) or “this must be some weird-ass noise-rock” (see the Dead C). When I actually listen to the record being discussed, I’m usually not far off the mark. I’m sure that there are Kiwi acts that play other genres, but I don’t know about them because either their records don’t come to these shores or I’ve become sheltered from reading too many indie magazines. Because of such, it’s nice to hear a record like Dean Roberts’ latest break the mold a bit. I first heard of Roberts through Thela, a rock trio that wasn’t too far removed from the “no-fi/no-rehearsal” aesthetic of the Dead C. I haven’t heard any of his work either with White Winged Moth or under his own name, but judging from Be Mine Tonight he’s chilled out A LOT since Thela. The four songs on this record are glitched-out slow-core journeys that suggest what it would sound like if the most solemn and spacious moments of Rustic Houses-era Hood were stretched out to the point of collapse, like rubber bands a millimeter away from completely snapping. Roberts has made a short album that almost seems to make time stop, which is no small feat. The average song length is eight and a half minutes, but the songs sound even longer than that. However, they’re so soothing that I don’t mind it at
“All Pidgins Sent to War” begins with digital signal processing that
sounds like a hissing sprinkler on a lawn. Scraped cymbals and droning guitars slowly creep into the mix. Around the two-minute mark, two pianos come in, playing in simultaneous yet independent motion as if the pianists were in separate rooms, unable to hear each other. The instruments finally fall in sync with each other once Dean starts singing. He sings in a tortured, tremulous tenor that rarely rises above a whisper, like a man afraid to get saliva on the microphone. The guitars are slightly out of tune with each other, and the vocals sound as if they’re recorded at the bottom of a well. Even at the song’s climax, when Dean croons in a falsetto over a majestic swell of guitars, the song sounds as if it’s in soft-focus, intentionally obscuring its own structure to provide the listener with an auditory equivalent of blurred vision. The song ends as it began, with the instruments falling back out of sync and the DSP sprinkler noises asserting themselves.
The other three songs play similar tricks on the listener. Guitars are bowed, beaten, and otherwise prepared in ways that make them sound like anything but guitars. However, the treatments are so unobtrusive that you’d need headphones and serious concentration to notice them. Dean often sings and strums so listlessly that the songs often sound like they’re being made up on the spot. The star of the show is Antonio Arrabito, who makes his recording debut as a drummer on Be Mine Tonight. His steady brushed drumming keeps the songs from falling into oblivion. He adds polyrhythms, plays behind and ahead of the beat, and uses random percussion such as bicycle wheels to add tension to already uneasy music. The end of “Palace of Adenaline V and E.E.” is where he shines the brightest. Antonio lets out a series of rapid yet subtle snare fills that have the quiet propulsion of a nation of ants running up a hill. For an ensemble that plays as if it’s cramped into a small apartment, afraid to wake the next door neighbors with their jamming, there sure is a lot going on in these songs.
Be Mine Tonight puts a sort of hypnosis on the listener that’s
only broken once. At the end of “Smash the Palace and What Nerves You Got,” a bit of feedback sneaks into the mix and is followed by four loud thwacks. The song threatens to turn into a full-blown rock assault, but the thwacks give way to complete silence. It’s the only concession on the album that Roberts makes to his noisier past. It’s a tease, a trick thrown in to ensure that the listener hasn’t fallen asleep yet. By the time album closer “Letter to Monday” begins, the spell is broken and you’re fully awake again, but the music slips right back into its torpor. Fortunately, Roberts rewards the listener with what is the album’s most cohesive song. The lyrics consist mainly of a chant revolving around the days of the week. His voice is prominent enough in the mix that you can make out the words, and the words are repetitive enough to form the album’s only real hook. I have occasionally sung this song in my head while walking around campus during these rainy winter days.
Be Mine Tonight has been the album that I’ve fallen asleep most often to over the last month, which is definitely a compliment. The album has the kind of title you’d expect a collection of love songs to have, and the music could definitely be the backdrop for a melancholy hipster couple’s make-out session. I guess I can make a new New Zealand stereotype based on this record: “weird-ass art ballads.” If there are any other Kiwis out there making music like this, send your stuff on over!