My clitoris doesn’t normally get all a-tingle when I hear electronic beats, but I have been known to make exceptions. One of the most common complaints I’ve heard from musicians I’ve known is how difficult it is to find and keep a good drummer. Oasis didn’t find one until their next-to-last album, and even then Zak Starkey refused to actually join the band. Given this challenge, you have to cut working musicians some slack and hope that the drums aren’t too robotic or too over-the-top. Even that self-proclaimed traditionalist Ian Anderson wound up using drum machines on Crest of a Knave, my favorite late-era Tull album, so electronic drums can work.
The problem with electronic beats is that with the advent of Garage Band, Pro Tools and Logic Pro, any moron can create loops and think they’re the greatest fucking thing since Gene Krupa. This universal availability of decent recording software has been great for the democratization of music but has had a negative impact on overall quality, particularly in the genre of electronic music: there are too many people doing it who at the core are not very talented musicians to begin with. In the hands of those blessed with musical gifts, like Brian Eno and Imogen Heap, electronic sounds can create soundscapes of great power and sensitivity.
So, yes, electronic beats and sounds can work, but I always approach them with justifiable skepticism.
Nonetheless, I was intrigued when I sampled Pyyramids’ debut album despite the dominance of electronica. There was something about the whole that triggered my curiosity. In reading the duo’s back-story, I found out that they had begun their relationship as long-distance collaborators, the second time this month I’ve run into this phenomenon of the Internet Age. They eventually got together live and in-person and did some live shows before heading to the studio to record Brightest Darkest Day, a fortunate decision that probably advanced their collaboration tenfold. Even though long-distance communication is possible and sometimes convenient, face-to-face communication is still the richest kind.
To fully appreciate Brightest Darkest Day, it’s helpful to remember that music can be interpreted from many different perspectives that have nothing to do with the technical or theoretical aspects of music. We give these perspectives names like mood, groove, feel and energy. These facets of music are partially the results of the notes, the tones, the time signatures, the cadence and all that, but descriptions like mood and energy are more about what we’re experiencing and what the artist intended for us to experience than the building blocks. Brightest Darkest Day is clearly a mood album that co-creator Tim Nordwind describes as “the struggle for happiness,” of “trying to ride the delicate balance” of being in an intimate relationship. The individual tracks combine to create a unique soundscape that is endlessly intriguing and becomes more accessible and enjoyable with each pass. The intrigue is heightened to the nth power by the other half of the duo, Drea Smith, who has a voice that oscillates between bubblegum and jazz, imbuing the work with a combination of innocence and unexpected bite. If there’s one criticism I have of the album, it’s that sometimes the arrangements and mixes crowd out her voice. Recording choices aside, Brightest Darkest Day is both hypnotic and satisfying on many levels.
The dominance of mood is established in the opening track, “Brightest Darkest Day (Intro).” Beginning with a simple loop punctuated with a single hit-per-measure on a deep-voiced tom, the dark sound of low piano chords enters the mix to expand and deepen the field. Drea’s voice enters, singing patterns of vowel sounds with occasionally dissonant harmonies. An organ appears, and her voice morphs into female-in-sexual tension; the visual impression is slow, seductive belly dancing. A killer opening.
The second track, “Smoke and Mirrors” is one of those tracks where the vocal is occasionally buried by a busy arrangement, curtailing the impact. That problem does not exist on “Don’t Go,” one of the strongest tracks on the album. The song opens with an African-tinged drum loop sweetened by marimba-like sounds, over which Drea Smith’s marvelous voice comes through sweet and clear as she sings to her ex:
I can’t stop these walls from fallin’ down,
Can’t keep you here, can’t pull you near, stand beside me
And I can’t will you back to hear the sound,
The empty room, the memory looms, you left behind
All the people are watching, looking and stopping—they all know
Oh, and we’re almost over, broken and sober—they all know.
Oh, please don’t go. Don’t go.
The second verse introduces background vocals and more complexity to the soundscape; as the verse fades, we’re treated to punchy, crunchy guitar hits before a truncated verse where Drea delivers her strongest vocal sequence on the entire album, an enchanting passage where her voice combines subtlety and strength. At this point you can’t help but stop and say to yourself, “Damn, she’s good!” I also have to compliment Tim Nordwind for an exquisitely sensitive arrangement here.
Next we get a dark dance number, “Do You Think You’re Enough?” a combination of electronica and kick-ass rock that Drea Smith sings with the sassiness that Gwen Stefani only wishes she had. The song deals with the human need to preen in accordance with others’ expectations (“You’re so good at playing make-believe/Try harder to pretend.”). About two-thirds of the way through, the song undergoes a complete transformation to an acoustic number with the repeated chorus, “Do you think you’re enough for them?” The transformation works because the fundamental theme is so strong; it’s like the first passage is about trying to strut your stuff to impress others and the second, quieter passage is the nagging doubt ringing in your ears telling you that you’re not pulling it off. The drum part in the rock passage, I have to admit, is frigging hot!
“Paper Doll” is another candidate for single status. It starts out sweetly with a mesmerizing guitar pattern leading to Drea’s relationship-weary vocal as she tries to deal with a male who has a control fetish:
I’m out of tune, I’m out of place
Can’t go back to you, I can’t see your face
It’s too much to know, can’t take it if I grow
You’ve got a heavy hand, you never let me think
I’m buried in the sand, you tease me with a drink
Either sweet on me, but nothing in between.
The arrangement explodes into heavy rock and then a passage that seems to mirror the turmoil this guy has put her through and her desire to be herself. Another killer performance!
“Everyone Says” extends the difficulty-in-relationship theme with a strong drum attack and flowing vocals arranged for a cascade effect; there’s always something interesting happening in the headphones on this number! “Invisible Scream” begins as darkly as Edvard Munch’s painting, an appropriate mood for a song about the difficulty of making oneself understood. The song lightens up slightly during the soulful chorus, a surprisingly catchy piece of music. “Time (Interlude)” follows, another instrumental piece that serves to alleviate the tension of “Invisible Scream” and open the way for the song “Time” and its spooky existentialism that is sort of a musical version of Waiting for Godot.
“That Ain’t Right” has a sort of nervous feel to it due to the steady clap sound and insistent guitar, but I love the way Drea phrases the vocal. The album officially ends with “Nothing I Can Say,” completing the relationship theme with the same message of endless difficulty and disconnection; it’s not quite different enough from the messages we’ve already heard to distinguish it from the better songs. There is a bonus track, an acoustic version of “Don’t Go,” an educational experience that tells you that “Don’t Go,” when stripped, is a solid song that provides endless possibilities for variation, as they proved on the main track. It’s one of those rare occurrences where the bonus track is not filler material but actually worth hearing.
Although I’ve taken up a lot of blog space writing about the individual tracks, I do want to emphasize that the reason why Brightest Darkest Day works so well is because of the mood these two talented artists managed to create. The mood is one I would describe as “hazy uncertainty with a few glimpses of light,” an apt description of the human journey to find meaningful relationships that allow all parties concerned to be themselves without any heavy bullshit getting in the way. The mingling of rock, soul, R&B and other influences feels fresh and alive, and my first gut level reaction when the album ended was, “I love these people for putting so much care into this.” You can tell that Brightest Darkest Day wasn’t just something tossed together for the hell of it, like a last-minute salad made of whatever’s left in the fridge. Brightest Darkest Day is a work of blessed originality, of edgy truths and endless fascination.
And best of all, despite of all the software that facilitated its creation, it’s a very human work. That is quite an achievement.