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[whitespace] Causing a Rockslide: Damon Gough--who performs as Badly Drawn Boy--gives introspecting a good name on new album.


Tech-Pop Hybrid

Badly Drawn Boy uses the aesthetic gains of electronic music in the service of forlorn tales about romance and loneliness

By Michelle Goldberg

THE MUSICIAN Badly Drawn Boy, a.k.a. Damon Gough, has been called the British Beck because he mixes a jangly, lo-fi indie aesthetic with cut-and-paste electronic effects and elliptical lyrics. Yet the comparison does him a huge disservice, because Badly Drawn Boy's debut album, The Hour of Bewilderbeast, is far lovelier and richer than anything Mr. Hansen has ever done, largely because Gough jettisons garage-sale kitsch in favor of a loopy kind of pastoral earnestness.

Rather than imitating Beck, The Hour of Bewilderbeast (Beggars Banquet/Twisted Nerve/XL-Recordings) recalls other British acts--like Beta Band and Looper--that marry tech effects to pop melodies and narratives.

Such hybrids seem to be the future of smart pop. For a while, electronic music looked like it was going to eclipse rock altogether, ushering in a whole new paradigm based on anonymity that blurred the line between audience and performer, between playing music and creating it. Basically, it failed.

Instead, the dance scene developed its own pantheon of celebrity DJs, stars even more hollow than rock's tired menagerie. Time was when electronic-music culture forced the musicians into the background so that, somehow, community could become the main event--people would pay attention to each other, not the guy behind the decks. That rarely happens anymore, as preeningly pompous record-spinners fancy themselves shamans, a notion seconded by adoring audiences.

Of course, fascinating, innovative electronic music continues to get made, but electronic-music culture is increasingly predictable and alienating. Once, the thrilling sensory overload of clubland and underground warehouse parties seemed like the perfect reaction to our society of the spectacle, but as mainstream pop culture grows ever more bombastic and surface-obsessed, one longs for music with a more personal, intimate message. Dance culture encourages you to lose yourself in the crowd, but then so does mass consumer culture. Sometimes, one wants to be spoken to as an individual.

Which is where artists like Badly Drawn Boy come in, taking the aesthetic gains of electronic music--a heightened feel for texture, rhythm and bricolage--and using them in the service of forlorn tales about romance and loneliness.

The Hour of Bewilderbeast begins with a chamber pop cello and French horn melody not unlike something you might hear on a Belle and Sebastian record, an impression intensified by the lovely acoustic guitar tune that wafts into the number. The song, "The Shining," has lyrics that are poetic and evocative rather than straightforward, but they feel far more meaningful than Beck's silly dada.

"Faith pours from your walls, drowning your calls/I've tried to hear, you're not near," he sings in his soft, almost Donovan-like voice. "Remember when I saw your face/Shining my way, pure timing." The message isn't explicit, but the feeling of yearning, affection and nostalgia comes through powerfully.

The sensitivity in The Hour of Bewilderbeast is a balm to anyone who feels emotionally eviscerated by the brutality and shrill sexual stridency that dominate so much current pop music. Mass culture increasingly has a gladiatorial feel, from the ugly, cartoonish excesses Korn and the Insane Clown Posse--bastard children of rap, heavy metal and wrestling--to the rabid acquisitiveness of mainstream hip-hop, the bald Lolita come-ons of Britney and company, and the dull, thumping hedonism of mainstream dance music. In such a climate, introspection is almost a dirty word.

THAT'S WHY, while there's nothing particularly difficult about The Hour of Bewilderbeast, it feels alternative in the original sense of that word, just as a fairly traditional singer/songwriter like Aimee Mann now comes off as some kind of renegade just because she's tuneful, cynical and literate.

There are dense bits on the album, like "Everybody's Stalking," with its swampy guitar swirls and low, buried vocals. Mostly, though, Bewilderbeast is plaintive and airy, with just enough sonic trickery and psychedelic weirdness to keep everything interesting and to reward repeated listening.

"Camping Next to Water" recalls the slow, gritty, ethereal quality of Galaxie 500 or Nick Drake. A song about a brief escape into the woods, it evinces a palpable sense of both bittersweet solitude and relief. Next comes "Stone on the Water," which opens with a long, intricately pretty prelude of guitars, string samples and pianos. The song's mix of classical, rock and electronic instrumentation melds perfectly, sounding utterly natural instead of like a self-conscious cross-genre collage. It's both unique and classic.

That's one of Badly Drawn Boy's greatest strengths: rendering the most endearing aspects of guitar pop fresh and new. "This Song" is a sweet, jaunty acoustic ballad processed so that it has a wavering, underwater quality. "Cause a Rockslide" starts off like a folky shoe-gazer track a la Sebadoh, but halfway through it explodes into a sci-fi carnival freak-out full of cosmic pulses, voices gurgling up from the deep, midnight-movie theremin and a haunting orchestral loop, before circling back to its opening mood.

The harmonica in "Pissing in the Wind" seems to magically evanesce into a small burst of sparkles, while "Say It Again" uses loping horns from the Northern New Orleans Brass Band to give the track a sultry, louche swing.

With the exception of "Cause a Rockslide," most of the digital tweaking is subtle and ineffably integrated into the instrumentation, blurring the line between acoustic and electronic, raw and processed. Such lines, of course, are artificial, existing more to serve cliques than creativity.

As Radiohead recently proved with Kid A, the best, most fascinating album of 2000, dance artists have no monopoly on the future. The forms pioneered by electronic-music producers can express alienation and isolation as well as celebration and escapism. Before electronic dance music came along, pop seemed limited by the straitjacket of the singer-guitars-drums-bass formula of the last few decades.

Now, much electronic music itself seems circumscribed by the narrow range of emotions that work on the dance floor--and by its inability to address the huge swaths of life that happen outside a party's dreamland. Thankfully, it's not an either/or situation, as artists like Badly Drawn Boy borrow from both worlds and create pop that transcends categories.

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From the November 16-22, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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