Monday, July 18, 2011

Washed Out: Within and Without

     Remember back at the very start of May, when I voiced my excitement over the upcoming Washed Out debut? No? Well, the lp dropped little under a week ago, and after getting stuck into it, here's the review. Washed Out is the musical pseudonym of 28-year-old producer and singer-songwriter Ernest Greene, whose 2009 EP 'Life of Leisure' caught the blogosphere by surprise,  and even fronted the ultimately false 'chillwave' movement. His sound has changed slightly from that to this however, for better or for worse. It's ethereal synth-pop, blissful in it's feathery texture, which concentrates heavily on atmosphere rather than lyrical pronunciation. I wasn't disappointed with this sonic shift as such, but some elements to the nine tracks could have been done better. The sugary reverb does nothing to sharpen the blurred vocals, but in Greene's defence this creates a very nostalgic and almost dream-like quality to the sound. I get the impression this is an album focused more heavily on production and sound than vocals and lyricism. This is perfectly fine, but I guess I would've just preferred a stronger, clearer voice to pull me through the haze, rather than wandering within it, without any discernible direction.
     Did you see what I did there? Within, without? Bah. 'Eyes Be Closed' opens the album relatively well, but that and 'Echoes' pretty much repeat ideas found on previous efforts. The latter in particular has vocals that echo, making them not very understandable at all. Like I said before though, this lack of articulation makes for a very mesmerising and relaxing track, be it with a lack of strength behind the brilliant production that brings it down a notch. 'Amor Fati' grooves along nicely, but again, I feel as though it could have been more forcefully lead. In the case of this track, it's like having a stretch of empty motorway while sitting in an open-top car. Instead of speeding along with the wind in your hair however, you crawl along at a snail's pace, with the sun burning your neck. These are all bad observations, and at times I do feel underwhelmed. I can't help but think though, that without the hype and outstanding EPs, this would have appeared better than it is. For a debut album, it's certainly not bad at all and a lot better than some I've heard, but in comparison with previous efforts, it doesn't live up to expectations. A shame, really.
     Having said that, there are glimpses of ambition and progression here that differentiate 'Within and Without' from the three EP's prior to this release. 'Far Away' is fantastic. The groove is mellow, and as such is one of the few tracks where the vocals feel well-matched to the feel. The instrumentation here is also some of the best on the record, from the wind-instruments to the tinkling bells. These all merge together and bring to life Greene's breathtaking vision of a misty mountain, glorious in it's unparalleled primal beauty. The relatively high vocals on 'You and I', matched with the soothing melody and delicate air. The relative simplicity of the title track 'Within and Without'. The relative clarity of the vocals on the finisher 'A Dedication'. These are all elements I enjoyed within this record, but relatively. Without the other tracks to compare to, would these have been as good?
     I can't deny that this is a solid debut album, but Greene's back-log is part of my complaint with it. Having released some inspiring stuff in the past, has he lived up to the expectations for this album? For me, not really. I just can't shake the feeling that this is an extended EP, rather than a fully formed full-length record. Many of the song's here, although good, don't sound any different to stuff we've heard from him before. Taking this as a debut album though, without considering any of the EPs, I have to admit I did enjoy it. It's full of dreamy soundscapes and whimsical vocals. It's a relaxing effort that, while not all that memorable, managed to enthrall. You never know, but I hope I enjoy Washed Out's later output more than I did this debut lp. It was just a tad underwhelming, for me at least.