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Deerhunter dreams up their best record yet

Mac Hendrickson | Monday, October 4, 2010

Animal Collective fanatics may love or hate producer Ben Allen, depending on how they look at the situation. Allen was behind the experimental quartet’s 2009 album “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” which managed to present Animal Collective as something you might actually hear on the radio, not a strange experimental noise sampling you might come across in Andy Warhol’s basement.

It was also the band’s cleanest, finest and most approachable album to date. Allen stepped in with the production of Deerhunter’s recent release “Halcyon Digest,” an album just as successful as “Pavilion.” “Halcyon Digest” is Deerhunter through and through, but stands as a record one could aptly pit against something mainstream, some record that cost an arm and a leg to cut.

A producer’s influence is one of those subtle foundational elements of a record. Something for the true fans and avid listeners, not the casual stereo player. Most garage bands don’t know what their songs can sound like until they throw a few thousand dollars behind it. That first listen, after a producer has messed with their sounds for a few hours and cleaned everything up, is shocking, scary and beautiful. “Halcyon Digest” gives a similar experience. Everything is clean and completely devoid of the common wincing that occurs with experimental indie rock. The record is sparse and surreal, reaching familiar ground between a nightmare and a daydream.

The aesthetic appeal of music as interesting as this is difficult to put into words. The songs are neither distant nor familiar. The record is interesting on the first listen, enjoyable on the second and a favorite on the third. It never becomes catchy (the enemy of indie music) but lingers on the lip of your attention all 46 minutes.

Bradford Cox’s vocals are a definite highlight, perfectly laid out in stereo ambience with a hint of distortion. The reverb perfectly places the record in some deserted dream where Cox’s surreal lyrics make perfect sense.

Beyond production, distribution and artwork (which happens to be very strange), the most important element of a record is the songwriting. No matter the circumstances, any album will stand on its feet so long as the front man can get his hands around six or seven solid songs. Halcyon Digest has its fair share. “Revival,” “Memory Boy” and “Desire Lines” are the highlights of an album packed with memorable tracks. “Memory Boy” is the track you turn to again and again with the power to remind you of the first time you heard it.

And that happens to be exactly what the record is all about: memory. The idea of revisionist history floats around but there is no subtle political or thematic message. The songs are stream-of-consciousness peeks at the past, a past both ideal and strange. The open atmosphere guitars strum away as Cox recalls a strange moment or an odd observation about his past. Each track passes like a foggy dream with familiar characters not seen in years.

It’s a 3 a.m. album. Its sparse melodies fill a silent, calm night where artists dream and madmen wander.

Ultimately, most words for this album must be reserved for the future. Albums like “Halcyon Digest” take a while to understand and come to grips with. By next year, the songs may have grown stale and uninteresting, overshadowed by other novel bands, but that is for time to tell. “Halcyon Digest” has the potential for greatness, and listeners will enjoy exploring this potential late at night when the sanity of the world has drifted away.