At its worst, pastiche pop can be über painful: a bedroom studio sand trap of too-arbitrary decisions and awkward musicianship that keeps listeners at arm’s length and confuses people into attending shows they end up despising. At its best, though, it’s honeyed goodness, an avant-garde puff of a genre with real-world cred (the Books at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts!) and a welcome lack of over-theorized aims or thematic rigor save for melody and cut-and-paste experimentation. Of course, there’s a thin line between muck and honey, and whether due to unresolved thematic concerns or underwhelming execution (or both), even the accomplished and talented can trip on their own ambitions.
With Widows, however, Lucky Dragons (a.k.a. Luke Fischbeck) has decidedly sidestepped muck and achieved honey. The LP is his fourth record, and it shows a balanced maturity of deft execution and sophisticated thematic cohesion. Widows manages to pose itself as the answer to its own big question, namely: Where’d wonder go? It’s a lofty query, and ultimately the record is built on sonic slivers too thin to achieve the majestic, redemptive status with regard to re-affirming innocence that it seems to perhaps want to tackle. Nevertheless, Widows engages the ineffable on an intimate, manageable plane to pleasing effect; it’s a brightly lit, organic-digital melange of unidentifiable instrumentation and nearly wordless hum-singing, and one whose guiding hand makes fresh decisions infused with a bravely un-ironic sense of humor.
The first indication of the record’s sparkle-and-fade aesthetic is opener “New Alium,” an exploratory meditation that flirts so hard with melody that rhythm is almost left home to watch television. A crackling acoustic something (dulcimer?) fades in, glitching its way along past the oasis of determinacy. Cue fittingly supporting melodic drumming and some vague voices, all complemented by scribbles of beyond-Chipmunk sped-up singing. “V Pattern” is almost two minutes of wind instruments (i.e. reed honks), shakers, trumpets and human yelps revolving around a simple, repeating melody, and the song fades out precisely before it loses steam. A jangle-y acoustic guitar and tambourine duet on the simple “Hello New Friend,” only to be joined by nearly whispered human harmonies that solidify it into a near-song.
Only rarely do these excursions veer into the aimlessly tedious. “Sleep and Sneezes” is fourteen seconds of exactly what it purports to be, simply accelerated until nearly unrecognizable; it’s unfunny. Even after repeated listens, “Snow Circle” remains too long and disparate. It’s unclear why Fischbeck didn’t stop to cleave its enjoyable parts into a few stronger pieces. And at times, the over-reliance on ProTools gimmickry grates.
But despite a few missteps, Widows is a strangely mimetic triumph, helping us remember wonder simply by making us actually wonder: at what we’re listening to, at how it’s being accomplished, at why we like it. The songs smack of Silver Apples “Noodles” and remain short, but brevity is essential when you’re trying to tell the kinds of sentimental jokes this record tells. Patterns are repeated from song-to-song or only slightly varied, structure flits in and out, lyrics are nonexistent, the singing is far from concrete, and yet Lucky Dragons collates these scraps into necessary, complete thoughts. If similes are to be believed, the whole thing sounds like an attic being turned upside-down-an airy spring cleaning of the mind. And therein lies the rub: Every time you try to clean things up, you just end up remembering why you didn’t throw them out in the first place.