January 17, 2005

Autistic Daughters "Jealousy and Diamond"

In late 2003, New Zealand expatriate Dean Roberts released Be Mine Tonight, an album that blurred the lines between composition and improvisation, between the electronic and the organic, and between the timeless and the endless. Roberts steadfastly refused to assert himself musically, opting instead to use his voice and guitar as a skeleton upon which his collaborators could do whatever they wished. “Real” instruments were manipulated through an array of DSP tricks, and musicians fell in and out of sync with one another at will. The songs didn’t end as much as they evaporated, disappearing into oblivion as soon as everyone decided they didn’t want to play anymore. It took Roberts and his collaborators 35 minutes to get through a mere four songs, and the transitions from one idea to the next were so slow and subtle that anything less than a listener’s total attention would have rendered them imperceptible.

Although Be Mine Tonight was billed as a solo record, the music on it had a malleability that could only come through truly democratic collaboration…which brings me to Jealousy and Diamond, the debut album by Roberts’ new band. The Autistic Daughters are a “power trio” in which Dean is backed by bassist Werner Dafeldecker and drummer Martin Brandlmayr. It is worth noting that Brandlmayr’s main band, Trapist, blurs the line between composition and improvisation in a similar manner (though they’re closer to jazz than they are to rock). The only other person who appears on both this album and Be Mine Tonight is composer/engineer Valerie Tricoli. Despite the lineup changes, there are only two main differences between Jealousy and Diamond and Roberts’ “solo” record. The songs tend to be shorter, and Roberts and his band actually get LOUD every once in a while. Otherwise, hindsight shows that Be Mine Tonight could’ve easily been the first Autistic Daughters record, as the songs on it are cut from the same cloth.

Most of the songs on Jealousy and Diamond begin the same way.
Roberts listlessly picks and strums at his out-of-tune guitar and “sings” in a soft, shaky mumble that sounds almost as if he’s weeping. His lyrics skirt around structure in a similar manner. For instance, “Florence Crown, Lost Replay” reads like an unfinished character sketch of a vulnerable girl (“She’s not made of steel/She tends to reveal too much/and they’re passing judgment”). “In Your Absence the Street” strings together seemingly disparate events to form a sad picture (“The windows are wet with condensation/The businessman has missed another flight/You run from the phone booth into a crowded station/Your heart’s broken too”). While Dean sings, Dafeldecker and Brandlmayr sketch out crawling rhythms on their instruments. Brandlmayr isn’t as creative a drummer as Be Mine Tonight’s Antonio Arrabbito, but he uses similar extended techniques (bowed cymbals, fancy brushwork, and even bouncing balls off of his snare) to turn his kit into more than a timekeeper. Everything is quiet, and so closely miked that you can hear every incidental noise. It’s a sound that is simultaneously indistinct and tactile.

These songs differentiate themselves by where they go next after said framework is established. Opener “A Boxful of Birds” ends with an uproar in which Roberts’ voice shifts into a throaty wail, as a series of disembodied voices and handclaps back him up. “The Glasshouse and the Gift-Horse” abruptly goes back and forth between two completely different riffs, and gets interrupted multiple times by a cacophony of off-key toy bells. “Spend it on the Enemy (While It Was Raining)” has a danceable mid-rhythm that is emphasized by a light coating of distortion that makes Brandlmayr’s drumming louder than everything else in the song. At one point, the rhythm section crashes hard on every upbeat while Roberts creates a morass of syrupy guitars, an effect that evokes Sonic Youth’s Branca-fied early work.

Even on the album’s loudest moments, Roberts and company pursue a sound so obtuse that if I hadn’t read the press kit, I wouldn’t have known that the fourth track, “Rainy Day in June,” was a Ray Davies cover! This band’s ability to stretch time and shift smoothly from torpor to torrent can turn almost anything into an Autistic Daughters song. Don’t come to this record expecting any hooks, melodies or volume. Jealousy and Diamond is only for listeners with a lot of time on their hands, who want to chill out and be propelled into another atmosphere.

---Sean Padilla

Label Website: http://www.kranky.net

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