by Nick Hanover
I go through favorite Sonic Youth albums the way some people change their minds about dinner. I know Daydream Nation is the pick I should go with if I want to be substantial and healthy, and Sister is a reliable favorite I know I can count on, but secretly I’ve got a hankering for Murray Street a fair amount of time. It’s a latter day work, proceeding the reviled NYC Ghosts & Flowers and preceding a return to some noisy roots, so it’s not necessarily a work that comes up on a lot of top 5 lists. There’s a dreamy charm to it that tugs at heartstrings I normally try to hide, though; maybe it’s because it came out at an important point in my life, because it musically conveys a whole slew of weird feelings I was going through in 2002, I don’t know. What I know is that the band had weird feelings of their own then, confusion not sex but uncertainty, and so they tried to make a new kind of sound, slightly familiar but out of line with the bulk of their catalog. That sound now seems to have predicted a strain of American shoegaze emphasizing slack charm over walls of sound, dreamy guitar textures murky yet bright enough to creep through the mix. It’s a shoegaze strain practiced by Austin’s Wildfires on their new(ish) album Aguas Frescas (Part I) and it’s tellingly the only version of American shoegaze I can get into.
Like Murray Street, Aguas Frescas is centrally defined by vocals that are aware of their limitations and yet aim for melodies slightly out of reach anyway. An album of stretched limbs and murmured deliveries, Aguas Frescas packs the appeal of a lover doing his best to maintain your affection, getting by not necessarily on talent or looks but good graces and a soft touch. Here experimentation doesn’t mean loops and odd time signatures but musical grafting, an ’80s UK indie jangle sewn to an American college rock vocal on “Sad Wolverine,” Jesus and Mary Chain swagger stacked on top of a Galaxie 500 Velvet Underground riff on “Graveyards.” That voice is the unifier, fearlessly devoted to making itself clear, unconcerned with smoothness or technicality.
There are curveballs, too. “Don’t Hate” ramps up like a prime Edwyn Collins track, its beat a jaunty promise of close gripped dancing with a crush, a grinning lead line eager to set a romantic mood before the Thurston Moore schooled vocals come in, pleading “don’t hate,” casually slipping into ooh ooh oohs. If there’s an Austin precedent for Wildfires, I’d suggest American Analog Set, not because these two bands share rhythmic influences or even similar song structures, but because they both excel at sustaining an autumnal mood, an impressive feat in a location as summer oriented as Austin. You can pick up on that even in what seem, like “Don’t Hate,” to be deviations, summery in their tempo and swing until the vocals arrive and that fall longing rears its head.
The closest Wildfires get to more traditional shoegaze is with album opener “Bad Breath,” with its slightly out of tune lead lick and underwater vocal production. Here the drums are thin but insistent, the chorus wordless and supported by a delay coated rhythm line. But there is no wall of sound, no impenetrable haze of effects and listlessness. “Bad Breath” has propulsion, it parcels out elements only as needed, like the synth pad that pops up in the second verse, or the “solo” that plays with the rhythm rather than doing some kind of melodic build. Modern shoegaze pretenders are too often like home chefs pretending at pretension, following recipes but wasting their time with lackluster or incorrect ingredients. Wildfires toss out the recipes altogether, operating on memory and feeling, getting to the heart of the appeal of a decades old sound without fussing over the specifics.
Just as memory can supercede the actual events it chronicles– making my Murray Street your Terror Twilight, perhaps– new strains of old genres are best when they’re deviating from the source like this. Aguas Frescas (Part I) may not be a vital work to shoegaze fans seeking out Loveless clones, but to my ears it’s a work of charm and ambition and taste, capable of cutting through my own prejudices against its peers, giving me sonic deja vu in the comforting rather than disquieting sense.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Ovrld as well as Loser City, where he mostly writes about comics. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover