Agitated Atmosphere: Julianna Barwick, Doberman, Vollmar, HOLOVR, Local H

Agitated Atmosphere, Album Reviews
Justin Spicer

As major labels continue to exist behind the times, artists and labels with little capital and lesser reputations are producing some of the most innovative, interesting, and inspiring music. Whether it’s creating a new niche in digital technology or looking to once obsolete formats, Agitated Atmosphere hopes to pull back the curtain on a wealth of sights and sound locally, regionally and globally.

At first, this was an issue (so to speak) of Agitated Atmosphere that was content to stay in my current backyard of Indiana. So it’s why you’ll see the likes of Doberman and Vollmar sharing space with the new Juliana Barwick (released on Dead Oceans, a sister label of Bloomington-based Secretly Canadian). But then someone slipped me a mickey in the form of HOLOVR and it somehow transported me, not to the dancefloor, but back to my teenage youth alone in a bedroom, speeding running Super Metroid with a pile of CDs next to me – which often featured Local H. So, I apologize to my great state for slipping a bit. But we still got ya covered and then some.Doberman - Alley Walkers(Castle Bravo; CS/DL)

The list of Indiana-based noise artists is relatively small. Known more for its pop music contributions than even its glory days as a bastion for some of the snottiest, wisest, and most adventurous punk, it’s rare that the Hoosier state is anything more than a flyover of musical taste. Yet the state has done much to not only repair the breech in its weird music history, but to forge in new directions despite being landlocked and somehow removed from the rapidly changing landscape. The internet has done much to further this cause, but it’s the artists who somehow stay removed from those modem buzzes and message board idioms that matter most. Case in point: Alley Walkers, the latest information pollution from Doberman. Uniting Lafayette and Bloomington in a rare show of small labels who can (Castle Bravo’s Aaron Zernick mixed and Magnetic South’s John Dawson mastered this beaut), Alley Walkers has the competitive animosity between the collegiate town stalwarts – keeping it very much a Hoosier product as the winds blow hard and brusk – yet it a big step outside of what Indiana has largely offered to the masses on such a scale. Alley Walkers is rough around the edges; its razed corn and soy turned into instruments of destruction rather than the byproducts of modern agriculture economics. It remains a very rural sound with metropolitan expectations. It’s quite removed from most Indiana noise (the defunct rope. is as close to a comparison to in-state notoriety as I can currently muster) but it isn’t following the noise consciousness even at the regional or national levels. It’s taking steps back toward reconfiguring what makes noise a viable medium outside the harshest whites and darkest browns. There are industrial rhythms as beholden to the decaying factories in the far reaches of the state as they are to the actual genre of music that morphed in the rust belt. No one is going to hear Alley Walkers and associate it with the Midwest. Yet, for those who have experienced the losses and epidemics of a state fraught with heroin addiction, joblessness, and HIV spikes, having Castle Bravo sic Doberman’s latest onto all of us is the growling vindication needed for a state that has more to offer than Jacksons, Babyfaces and Roses.

Julianna Barwick - Will(Dead Oceans; LP/CD/DL)

The latest from Barwick finds her voice continuing to become the strongest instrument in her arsenal. They are often laid bare throughout Will, twisted and evolving simple ideas into craftily knit melodies that warmly wrap around your body, even as the production hints at colder, draftier confines. When Barwick does settle behind a different instrumental path, it still leads to wide open pastures that reflect a glowing beauty and serenity only know in the silence of the seasons. Will has an Indian summer magic about it; when fall comes early but still has all the radiance and sun-stroked embrace of the best summer imagery. Where the work may seem to indicate impending frost, its husky strings and heartfelt piano provide shelter against lingering thoughts of Old Man Winter. Will is going to grow on you throughout those all-windows-down, beach daydream adventures (even if it’s just behind a cubicle desk). By the time the seasons change later in the year, Will will be your go-to.

Vollmar - Open Window(Flannelgraph; CS/DL)

Justin Vollmar is a bit of a neglected Indiana legend, and it’s been too long. Open Window is not only a return to public consciousness, but a solid return to form. Riding a wave between local artist Nat Russell and Phil Elverum (himself once a frequent visitor of Bloomington, Indiana during tours), Vollmar does so much with so little as far as melody goes. His are campfire songs – warm and flickering amidst the darkness of our own thoughts. The post-black wooden idea of pop revitalizism that can also be darkly humorous ("If I complain/Of work and strain/Take this wooden spoon/And gag me like a hostage/I want you to make me choke/Til it brings up a mess for us to scrutinize"). It’s self-realization at its most niche; the foibles of our own follies now in acceptable pop dosages and 4/4 time.

HOLOVR - Trace Realm(Firecracker; CS/DL)

In recent years, my favorite leisurely magazine read has foretold the re-emergence of house, techno and acid music from across the shores. Even in these post-modem times, the arrival of such jubilant sounds of yore have arrived in trickles. Yet, these reborn genres aren’t really coming back to life nor were they dormant. They, like so many other genres that have survived like cockroaches, have adapted to a different climate. Such is Jimmy Billingham, himself equipped with a sturdy exoskeleton that has evolved his capabilities in recent years. Trace Realm bridges the beats and rhythms of house and techno with the acid-washed ambient and pre-dawn Day-Glo of his prior work. The results are something just off to the side of the neon dance floor; for the come down when the crew is still hopped up on the adrenaline (and just adrenaline, right…) of the 4am club comedown. It’s the sun catching the side of a painted face and a droopy eye, still fighting to stay awake in the euphoria of a new day. Trace Realm may not be the thump and repetition of the old guard, but that’s why it’s distinguishable and well worth listens no matter your mood.

Local H - As Good As Dead (Reissue)(SRC; 2xLP/DL)

What is a reissue of a mid-90’s alterna-record doing in a column like this? For one, As Good As Dead -- even though it delivered a rock radio hit with “Bound for the Floor” and a notable follow up with “Eddie Vedder”—went largely unnoticed as a whole album twenty years ago. And it was good; actually, it was very good. Few albums of the era dared to make a whole statement from beginning to end, and Local H did it back-to-back (with the 1998 follow-up Pack Up the Cats. While most of Gen X was doused in “Loser” culture, basking in and celebrating their own ennui, As Good As Dead poked back at those ideals. Though it was harder to find in those aforementioned hits because the lyrics that stuck were ambiguous about such ideals (“If I was Eddie Vedder/Would you like me any better?/That’s it, I quit/I don’t give a shit”), it’s the forgotten digs at such boring lifestyle choices that still carry the album into the 21st Century where it’s ripe for “Millennials” to hear the collective choke job X’ers did at generating change, choosing to embrace the suck. “Fritz’s Corner” is a chastising song against the generational norm; a response to the glory of Green Day’s “Longview” that celebrated the failures of Baby Boomers by throwing it back in their face without insisting on true action to globalize change. “High-Fiving MF” a similar response to Cake’s “Rock and Roll Lifestyle,” that predates the explosion of the Hot Topic invasion of small American music through the prism of those still grasping to bad metal, bad fashion, and the attitude that was once existed was better. It was a call to action against classic rock enthusiasts who saw no point in alternative music (and sadly were proven right when the bottom fell out and major labels branded it just like everything else) that also seemed to harken the bro renaissance that has now engulfed pop culture for the last decade. As Good As Dead seems out of time in retrospect, even as its riffs and raw pop aesthetic were very much of the mid-90’s. It’s proven out with the demoes and rough cuts that populate the extras included in a download, where the band is clearly able to workshop, expand and deftly edit complicated ideas into thoughtful, but pithy statements. It’s a trend that’s continued under Scott Lucas’ guidance even through personnel changes.

Justin Spicer is the editor of Cerberus at Tiny Mix Tapes and contributes to global online and print publications. You can follow him and his work via Twitter.

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