After 2010’s promising self-titled debut, Austin duo YellowFever went ominously quiet. Then at the beginning of 2012, quite out of the blue, band members Jennifer Moore and Adam Jones revealed that legal complications had forced them to change their name to Deep Time. The new moniker in place, and having moved from the Vivian Girls-run Wild World label to Sub Pop’s Hardly Art imprint, they went on to announce a self-titled sophomore album.
The duo stubbornly describe themselves as a pop group. While references to the classic pop canon were evident on YellowFever, the album also suggested that their music was descended from a line of minimalism that passes through the sparse post-punk of Young Marble Giants, the “shambling bands” of the C86 movement, and the stripped-down indie of the Spinanes. Their first record took this whole musical lineage and gave it a firm twist; their second sends it cartwheeling. “We want to play pop music, but we try to make it sound as weird as possible,” Moore explains of Deep Time.
Jones listens to free jazz by Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman; Moore to Philip Glass and Fred Frith; and most of Deep Time’s wonderful weirdness arises when these influences confront the duo’s pop framework. The album’s first single, “Clouds,” initially sounds like what every great pop song wants to sound like: shiny guitars, lilting vocal harmonies, every inch of it infectiously memorable. But look closer and you’ll find that the track replaces the usual verse-chorus format with five short, unique sections that are combined and recombined à la Glass. Similarly, “Sgt Sierra” starts like a sweet pop lullaby but quickly turns sour. With harmonic invention that testifies to the duo’s jazz listening, the track deliberately avoids natural resolutions and comes off like the Velvet Underground experimenting with Schoenberg. Again, “Homebody” deals with familiar pop themes of love, loss and parting, but its stark, Ayler-esque march rhythm warps the song’s perspective. There is a lot of experimentation, but rather than overloading the duo’s pop sound, it is artfully integrated within it and gives the music depth.
Moore’s vocals may be the album’s biggest draw. Exploring her voice the way Frith explored the guitar, she produces all manner of non-verbal sounds: yelps, howls, screams. She delivers her lyrics with equal innovation. Listening to her bruised timbre, skewed diction and swimming harmonies is like hearing beautiful songs in a foreign language. It is easy to let the sounds wash over you, but you miss out by doing so. YellowFever was full of clever wordplay – lifting, twisting and embedding lyrics from pop’s past – and it is hard to listen to Deep Time without searching for similar gems. Opener “Bermuda Triangle” could be taken at face value, but it could just as easily be a response to Fleetwood Mac’s 1974 song of the same name. “They brought us up, we’ll bring them down, around the earth, we’re coming down,” sings Moore, and it is difficult not to contrast her metaphorical usage of the Bermuda Triangle trope with Bob Welch’s literal interest in the paranormal.
Deep Time will faithfully accompany you through the summer, and it may well take you that long to uncover all its hidden riches. It strikes a perfect balance between musical invention that will leave you cupping your ears, semiotically puzzling lyrics that will leave you scratching your head, and catchy pop style that will leave you tapping your feet.
Review by Matthew Ellis