One song does not a genre make. But in the summer of 2009, “Feel It All Around” came damn close. It was the standout track on the Life of Leisure EP, the debut of Georgia musician Ernest Greene, also known as Washed Out. Greene created lo-fi, synth-heavy bubbly bursts of woozy, blissed-out pop that heavily referenced the 1980’s in both recording style and record samples (Gary Low, Change, V.I.P. Connection). The moniker was spot on; Washed Out’s songs were deliberately faded and frayed around the edges, the sonic personification of summers long gone by, and always accompanied by hazy, nostalgia-inducing images of swimmers and sunsets.
Bloggers noticed other musicians making similar sounds (Memory Tapes, Toro y Moi, and Neon Indian) and lumped them together as pioneers of a new so-called genre “chillwave” (or “glo-fi”). But like most musical categories, chillwave really only exists in the minds of those critics who invented it (Hipster Runoff, in this case, in admittedly hilarious fashion). There was no geography, philosophy, or creative one-upmanship tying these artists together. Rather, it was simple evolution — a handful of the many thousands of aural gene-splicers who made similar findings on their MacBooks around the same time. Some were bound to use the same strain of 80’s synth pop as an inspiration, and for three intoxicating minutes on “Feel It All Around,” Washed Out did it best.
It’s now two years later, and Washed Out is poised to make the summer of 2011 the breakout season of chillwave via Within and Without, their highly-anticipated full-length album on legendary label Sub Pop. On paper, it has all the ingredients for success — a heartthrob indie front man, relentless online buzz, an enticing album cover (uh yeah….take another look) and the same quest for that perfect, sun-drenched 80’s vibe that made Life of Leisure EP equal parts guilty pleasure and Red Bull on Quaaludes mind-fuck. But, as it turns out, pure bliss is not so easy to come by.
Within and Without is a smart move in that it differs only slightly from Life of Leisure EP — same instruments, same drowsy tempos, same lush synth chords — everything just sounds a little bigger, brighter, and bolder. But as logical as this maturation might seem for a major-label album debut, it actually works against Washed Out. It’s important to begin any critique of any chillwave artist by acknowledging a fundamental truth — the music’s appeal is closely tied to its sense of impermanence. When done well, it has a gauzy, almost see-through quality, like the momentary crystallization of something innately temporal. Life of Leisure worked because it was warbly, shimmering, and nearly evaporated as soon as it hit the air — rarely has something only 17 minutes long felt like it could last the entire summer.
Within and Without is barely over 40 minutes but that added length, along with the higher production quality, are major detractors from the music’s DIY charm and leanness. Too often, the recording is so crisp and brightly lit that it leaves you feeling detached and glassy-eyed. Greene recorded Life of Leisure in his bedroom studio and you could feel the rough edges in the track mixes and the hunger in his embarrassingly reed-thin vocals. It could have been any of us singing, which helped create an extraordinary sense of connection with the record. On Within and Without, Greene’s voice is bulked up and placed front and center, but the result feels oddly sterile, like the intimacy has been replaced with a glossy veneer.
The album certainly has its moments — “Eyes Be Closed,” “Amor Fati,” and “You And I” swirl with the sort of wispy, summertime energy that gives Washed Out’s music that fond, can’t-quite-place-it familiarity. But overall, there’s a shortage of memorable hooks; nothing’s as close to catchy as “Feel It All Around” or “New Theory” or “You’ll See It,” all tracks whose beauty make them listenable during any season. With the exception of the final song “A Dedication,” whose haunting piano line and soft-spoken incantations linger in memory long after the record is over, Within and Without sounds at times like the work of someone trying cash in on Washed Out’s formula — unfortunately that someone is Greene himself.
Oddly enough, Greene’s quest for an “80’s sound” mirrors our cultures recent fascination with vintage clothing from the same era. Wearing old, striped tank tops and 50-50 t shirts is in again— the more obscure and well-worn, the better. It’s hip, environmentally-friendly and almost a sure way to dress original in a society filled with mass-produced clothing. But what began as a way for people to stand apart has itself become a commercialized industry; savvy fashion designers now make vintage replicas, clothes that look and feel old but are right off the assembly line (for $40 of course). Within and Without feels a little like this — an attempt to synthesize sound of a decade gone by, but done a bit too cleanly and bloodlessly. The dilemma, in both cases, is that vintage and authentic are not one in the same.
New York Times critic John Pareles fittingly called chillwave “recession-era music. Low budget and danceable” — the sort of Holy Grail for a generation that hands out mp3’s like party favors. In an era when cheap distribution of electronic music renders the medium less substantial, it probably makes weird sense that a genre feel so targeted to an audience, yet so imminently disposable. It’s like Graham and others are responding to market conditions, crafting music in their bedrooms with laptops, cheap keyboards, and a bunch of 30-year old electro pop records. When all of the elements fall into place, a song like “Feel It All Around” is nothing short of magical. But in their absence, chillwave veers precariously close to being something else entirely — music that people waterski to.
Within and Without is by no means a bad record; it’s pleasant-sounding, fantastic for the beach, and, not surprisingly, easy to listen to with a buzz on. But it feels more like a Xerox of a Xerox than anything else. And the aforementioned sexy album cover? It’s actually a stock photo that recently appeared alongside an article on lovemaking in Cosmopolitan magazine. Whoops. It’s originality, along with that of the chillwave summer of 2009, might best be served in memory, just like the magic of the ephemeral summers of my 80’s youth. Some things must remain so because, sadly, they just aren’t built to last.
“Amor Fati” – Washed Out – mp3
“Feel It All Around” – Washed Out – mp3
Buy Within and Without on Amazon.
A Xerox of a Xerox. Yes. No me gusta.