Opening with the slow-burner “Hey You Guys,” the aesthetic of Dancing and Drugs is quickly revealed. From the echoed, heavily treated speak-sing of Circlesquare mastermind Jeremy Shaw to the half-interested cuffed guitar off to the wayside right down to the sparseness of the programmed drums, electro-minimalism takes chief priority. And to Circlesquare’s credit, the album is beautifully produced. Every noise, even the slightest rattle or whir, is revealed crisply and cleanly, so that it allows you to sink in to the spaciousness of each song, however alienating the track may be.
And these tracks are alienating. “Timely” takes eight minutes to unfold, opening with handclaps, finger snaps, and acoustic-guitar strums before spiraling into an aggravated stop-and-start electro-beat. The thirteen-minute “All Live but the Ending” doesn’t reveal its reluctant new-wave pop roots until nearly midway through the song, while still undergoing intermittent moments of deconstruction throughout.
Conceptually, Songs About Dancing and Drugs is airtight. Unfortunately, the music isn’t. Circlesqaure takes us through the stages of a harsh comedown as vividly as if we were to pop a palmful of ecstasy and experience the great brain drain on our own. And there are certainly enough references to dancing to sum up the other half of the title. But in spite of this, Dancing and Drugs ultimately too often fails to engage, and not because of its stark minimalism.
From Suicide to Joy Division, Autechre to this year's brilliant Immolate Yourself by Telefon Tel Aviv, bleak, minimalist electronica has been engaging audiences for years while maintaining a chilling disconnect. For all Dancing and Drugs' stylistic production and thorough concept, it’s the songs themselves that tend to bore. Be it Shaw’s droning vocal, his pseudo-poetics that too often rely on clichéd drug-speak (“Thunder and lightning keep breaking our mirror/Magnets and spyware and sunlight/ This moment, my friend, could be fleeting”), or the momentum these eight lengthy songs never seem to muster, Songs About Dancing and Drugs is a chemically challenged experience that too often feels about as good as a lobotomy.
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