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Album review: Dan Deacon's 'America'

August 28, 2012|By Randall Roberts
  • Dan Deacon's "America" on Domino Records.
Dan Deacon's "America" on Domino Records. (Domino Records, Domino…)

Dan Deacon

"America"

(Domino Records)

Two and a half stars (out of four)

It takes nerve to title a record “America,” a loaded word if there ever was one, and acclaimed electronic music performer Dan Deacon is embracing the challenge. Deacon, whose middle-of-the-crowd gigs, in which he sets up his gear in the pit and rocks hard along with fans rocking hard to his music, are some of the most frenzied and inspiring shows I’ve seen in recent years. He’s also a video artist and combines his frantic neon-colored mantra clips with like-minded music to create a modern-day A.V. overload writ large.

And on his new, artistically record “America,” the Baltimore-based composer attempts to stretch his creative ideas further — to mixed though often thrilling results.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise that Deacon’s exploring more sophisticated realms. Last year, he collaborated with director Francis Ford Coppola on a score, and his recent video work has been featured in fancy museum shows the world over. The musician, who learned how to rile a crowd as the hype man for a ska band, is crossing over from underground phenom to a broader audience — and on “America,” these growing pains are evident.

Deacon’s goal has always been to pump up, not bring down, and the best tracks on “America” — including “True Thrush” and “Lots” — build a sturdy rhythmic scaffolding upon which Deacon offers a roller-coaster’s worth of momentum. He achieves this on “America” through the use of acoustic instrumentation to augment his electronics, mixing in a midsize orchestra featuring strings, woodwind and brass, and a broad chorus of trained vocalists.

This step toward more sophisticated arrangements feels like an attempt to bridge the genre gap between the hypnotic tones of techno and tribalism and the minimalist mantras of Steve Reich, Mike Oldfield, LaMonte Young and Phillip Glass.

But though “America” is an explosive document, half the time it’s a lot of smoke and bang, and it treads on territory that others have explored more thoughtfully. “Pretty Boy” is a Space Age prog rock-styled instrumental that feels more complicated than it actually is. And though the opening freakout, “Guilford Ave. Bridge” is a monster jam that no doubt will be a propulsive track when Deacon performs it live, but as a recording it’s piled on a little too thick, and it offers little that Japanese noise band the Boredoms have done better.

The final four tracks are a four-part concept piece called “USA,” interesting in bits and pieces — especially the Reich-ian phase-shifting of “USA II: The Great American Desert” — his string and horn arrangements feel like the early attempts of a learned student, one who has yet to fully harness the power he’ll soon possess. 

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