Altin Village & Mine AVM054 2015, DD CD & LP album, 41m 2s
$7+ DD $13.50 LP $14+ CD
‘Literate’ is a term that some might use to characterise Dropout Patrol, and ‘erudite’ is another: neither is really up to the task. Sunny Hill is not a literate record in the sense of being wordy, or more concerned with meaning than feeling, and neither is its erudition of the obvious sort, presenting a succession of clever references or flash musical competencies. But this is a band that knows its language, that has schooled itself in the ways that sounds and stylistic tropes signify, presenting its insights with precision and nuance. There is never any possibility of substitution or paraphrase in the exact combinations of verbal, harmonic, textural and melodic content that they present. These nine songs offer penetrating, mordant perspectives from angles that are not usually visible to pop music’s subjectivities, as though Gunther von Hagens’ plastination techniques were applied to still-living specimens. And isn’t that one of the primary functions of art? To vivisect the ineffable materials of human experience, to examine with ruthless veracity the tissue of memory, aspiration and behaviour, in ways that are, for most of us, too uncomfortable to contemplate outside the particular ritual boundaries that are afforded to creative work. There is a terrible stillness at the heart of this album, a silence that is deafening even in the music’s loudest, rockiest moments, a kind of blank space, a harsh negative glare which strips naked all who enter it. The onward progress of the music, which is exactly as compelling and as aesthetically rewarding as it needs to be, holds out the same tantalising promise of flow and self-actualisation that is spuriously offered by less critically aware indie- and alternative rock bands; but in Dropout Patrol’s distinctive voice it is clear that what might appear to be flow is mere repetition, and progress no more than routine. The listener may well feel that their life is meaningful, but Sunny Hill is not offered to them as a confirmation: it is a question, an invitation to run the gauntlet of uncompromising reflection.
The textures of the music are clear and their elements, while thoroughly integrated, are framed in space, like artworks on a gallery wall. The instrumental resources are few, two guitar parts, bass and drums, arranged to find moments of complexity in the intersections of their relatively simple phraseologies. The guitars are clean, the bass bright – and overdriven to the first signs of grit, but no further, the drums crisp and tight; the whole album is recorded with crystalline presence, as beautifully clear as an ECM classical release, and the performances are as economical as they are exact. Based on their sound, I expect that Dropout Patrol find themselves carelessly categorised as ‘indie-rock’, but their common-time, tonal, rock-textured music is as carefully considered and crafted as the most recherché avant-prog opus, and as different from the generic guitar-emoting of the indie mainstream. The music is a tissue of recognisable stylistic tropes, which makes it perhaps more impressive that it is so unique and particular. This tension, between the generic and the specific, between the repetitions of riffs and the unpredictable character of their intersections (an affective powerhouse exploited in very different ways by Minimalist composers), is central to the music as a whole, which is, unsurprisingly, far more than simply the sum of the above described orchestrations and some singing. Rather than sequencing a series of conventional sections into a set of songs, Dropout Patrol construct their compositions gesturally, even conversationally, the relations of their parts reflecting the rhythms of speech as much as the exigencies of conventional songcraft, whose central, overriding concern, to secure the listener’s approval, is conspicuous by its absence. This is not ‘difficult’ music, and it does not ask the audience to re-examine its aesthetics, but it is certainly challenging. Sunny Hill is a record that will mean little to those who cannot engage with it lyrically, and those that do may as well not bother if they are averse to self-examination.
Ambiguity abounds in these songs, and no easy platitudes are presented, but in ‘Whalers’ we are offered a metaphor we can get to grips with. Whether the songs play host to a single narrative voice or many is not clear, but they have much in common, and here they are united in a vast, futile, allegorical quest for meaning in the mastery of the other. The song repurposes Moby Dick to the concerns of certain twenty-first century subjectivities, and seems to both summarise and illuminate the many subtle and particular observations found throughout Sunny Hill. ‘The fishing line is pulling you under,’ sings Jana Sotzko, ‘that’s the strangest thing.’ That strangeness, the alienating affective consequence of a failure to connect, is the subject of this album, if it can be said to have one; these are tales told from the exhausted silence after the violence of dysfunctional relationships has run itself into the ground. The characters in the songs have not experienced life and lovers, but ‘variations of places and names’, as ‘Beautiful Noise’ has it. They go through the motions, because what else is there to do? ‘Are we technically angry?’ asks the disconnected narrator of ‘Love, Aren’t We Angry?’. All these characters can see are the superficial surface features inscribed on processes they can only experience as repetition: it’s not necessarily easy to separate the authorial voice from the narrative agents in these lyrics, but if you can say anything about it, it’s that it values the particular. The songs proceed from an understanding that grasping the specific and holding onto it is the only hope we have of evading the bleak emptiness that fills these scenarios; but the characters in the lyrics miss it every time, grasping too tight, or too late. While Sunny Hill resists the tendency to valorise biography, to turn it into the kind of comforting narrative that can be found in mass market movies and TV shows, in its penultimate song it portrays a subject with a somewhat cinematic sense of their experience, albeit once constructed from the cutting-room floor; and although we find ourselves witness to the same cycles of repetition, the perspective is less bleak. ‘A half-arsed idea/ a loop that got stuck’ offers at least a fractional validation, and the generational iterations of experience that ‘Sharks’ describes offers a mechanism, if not an explanation for the cycles. ‘We are all archives/ watching ourselves on repeat,’ Dropout Patrol conclude: and indeed, such Baudrillardean simulacra is all we can imagine ourselves to be if we refuse to hear anything beyond the names and places, if we persist in drowning out the rest with ‘beautiful noise’. This album is one that grows on you: it is not full of immediate rewards and entertainments, but if you like to have your thoughts provoked, then this is just the trick. It is incisively observed, meticulously expressed, and beautifully realised.