New York City has long been identified as the spiritual home to a million and one musical trends. Hip-hop, salsa, punk, electroclash (just kidding) — all of these movements have at one time or another found their stories inextricably woven into the fabric and landscape of what is arguably America's greatest city.
Around a decade ago — and perhaps a decade too late, but hey, we can't all be in our 40s — I started hearing the term "shoegaze" used to describe a new-ish type of aggressively woozy, guitar-based music. This weekend, two of the highest profile — and remarkably different — acts to have the label applied to them perform in Detroit. Blonde Redhead (who formed in 1993) plays Marble Bar on Sunday, while relative newcomers DIIV (who formed five years ago) plays the Loving Touch on Saturday.
The Loving Touch
Williamsburg is undoubtedly the epicenter of, and the prototype for, the changes taking place in virtually every city across the globe. How incredibly bizarre it must be for DIIV frontman Zachary Cole Smith, then, to be labeled its "king" by the music press intelligentsia. As far as media darlings go, you could admittedly do no better than Smith. He is a visually interesting character. It is not unfair to say he looks like the kind of white person you tend to see more of in places like Bushwick, Shoreditch, or Echo Park. And between modeling gigs for Saint Laurent, he has attracted almost as much commentary on his trademark oversized T-shirts as he has for his telltale guitar sound and surf-inspired production values.
Smith has been alternatively fawned over and sneered at by music critics, and his five year relationship with singer and supermodel Sky Ferreira gave them plenty of material. In 2013, the pair were arrested near Smith's home in the Catskill Mountains with a car full of Schedule 1 narcotics, including heroin. This did nothing to quell the Internet's popular "Kurt and Courtney" narrative. It didn't help that Smith had previously likened himself to Cobain and spoken of a Nirvana fixation. The band's name is itself a reference to a song from Bleach, with the spelling changed for legal reasons.
When I first heard DIIV's single "Doused," from their debut album Oshin, I was in a place called the Grey Area in Amsterdam. In a scenario that has replicated itself without fail every time I have visited that city, the sound came together with my surroundings, and perhaps the collective experience of the people there with me, forming a sort of divine equation that electrified my senses. My auditory and visual sensors dilated and my jaw slackened. "What is that heavenly sound on the PA," I thought. "I must know."
The first time this happened, it turned out the song was "Show Me the Way" by Peter Frampton. This was before the widespread availability of apps like Shazam or SoundHound, so I could not be held responsible for enjoying music I should otherwise know not to. DIIV's bag of tricks may not be as legendary as Frampton's talk-box gimmick, but their use of these somewhat more conventional techniques has a greater impact on the band's overall sound. DIIV have sometimes been described as a "nautical-themed" act, and aside from the name of their band and first album, the heavy use of reverb on both vocals and guitar often give the listener the impression that their music was recorded inside a submarine.
Early this year, DIIV released their highly anticipated follow-up to Oshin. The events that preceded the release of Is the Is Are — the high-profile drug bust, Smith's breakup with Ferreira, a series of controversial remarks by the band's bassist — created an undeniable tension, and were coupled by a series of lofty promises by Smith that the new album would be a marked departure from both his previous work and what he alleged was the boring and stagnant state of guitar music. What followed was another DIIV album. And while it was released to some criticism for "sounding like DIIV," this is not bad news for most of us. Songs like "Yr Not Far" and the album's title track pick up where Oshin left off, and feature DIIV's characteristic blend of driving, post-punk rhythm section with hypnotic/aquatic guitar riffs andfar away vocals.
Blonde Redhead @ Marble Bar
In many respects, Blonde Redhead is the band Smith aspired to become for Is the Is Are. Throughout their career, they have displayed a remarkable ability to create truly original work, and seem to have evolved by light-years with each successive album. Unlike Smith, they have largely hid from the press, and are perhaps the embodiment of the kind of band art music critics tend to like. The Pitchfork review of their 2004 album Misery Is a Butterfly was referenced in David Cross' piece "Albums to listen to while reading overwrought 'Pitchfork' reviews," which itself appeared on the Pitchfork website.
Early Blonde Redhead tends to explore territory similar to acts like Sonic Youth or Fugazi, and the band has recruited the production talents of legendary Dischord Records alumnus Guy Picciotto on two separate occasions, first on their 2000 album Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons and then four years later on its follow-up Misery Is a Butterfly. The period was one of the most significant in the band's career. Following the release of Melody, singer and guitarist Kazu Makino was involved in a serious accident while horse riding, and broke her jaw. When Blonde Redhead re-emerged, their sound had undergone a clear transformation. This was no more evident than on "Elephant Woman," the opening track for Misery, with its haunting, intricately composed string arrangements, and vague, unsettling references to a tragedy.
As composers, the work of Makino and Italian twins Simone and Amadeo Pace is grandiose, and it is no wonder that it has seen heavy use in the world of cinema and television. Their tunes have lent atmospherics to prime-time dramas like Grey's Anatomy, sensationalist British teen soap opera Skins, and even Rick and Morty. The songs on Misery and their 2007 follow-up 23 are frequently morose, and evocative of dread, but still undeniably beautiful. Perhaps the Pace twins could be their generation's answer to Ennio Morricone. "Dripping," the lead single from their last album Barragán, is a stripped down revisitation of the language and devices Blonde Redhead have developed since Misery. It is, in a word, dreamy.
DIIV plays the Loving Touch on Saturday, June 4; Doors at 7 p.m.; 22634 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; thelovingtouchferndale.com; $18.
Blonde Redhead plays Marble Bar on Sunday, June 5; 1501 Holden St., Detroit; $17 in advance, $20 at the door.