Monday, November 19, 2012

The Peaceful Haze of "Half Dreaming"

I moved back to Austin in the summer of 2009 to an apartment complex that I now remember as idyllic. It was very clean and well-kept, our neighbors were mostly pretty realistic and mature, and my new wife felt safe enough to walk to the gym in the morning dark. It was quite perfect for us at the time, and it represented the promise of the new life we had begun to lead in Austin. Additionally, I was finishing my Master’s thesis in ethnomusicology, and I was riding a wave of academic momentum. As I began to break free of the constraints of my study, I focused that energy on the study of Asian music. I took Japanese language lessons the following summer and studied the shakuhachi as an investment in my potential future as an ethnomusicological scholar.

A few months after that move, Mew’s album No More Stories are Told Today…… was released, which subsequently reignited my interest in the shoegaze bands that they cite as influences. I was already giving My Bloody Valentine a second run, but they had me banging my head against the wall. I could sense that Loveless had more going on than I understood, but I was still looking in the wrong places. I thought I would branch out, and, inspired by my increasing interest in Japanese music and a couple of great experiences with global pop compilations, I discovered Half-Dreaming, a collection of Asian shoegaze and dream-pop.

Considering what I had learned about global popular music, and contemporary Japanese music in particular, I should not have been surprised that Half Dreaming bears very few obvious markers of Asianness. If you are looking for a localized twist on shoegaze, this will probably be disappointing. Asian popular culture, however, has historically been very adept at consuming and repurposing cultural material. Viewed in this fashion, Half Dreaming is an engaging (if somewhat inconsistent) representation of a contemporary Asian style that emerged through the appropriation of a relatively small British scene.

Now I must confess that my experience and knowledge of shoegaze styles is quite blinkered. It was only this year that I finally began to see the fragile beauty of Loveless, so I am hardly an expert. My newfound appreciation for that landmark album, however, prompted me to revisit Half Dreaming.

Distorted, reverbed guitars are often foregrounded on the album, smothering the vocals in a dense fog. Of course, emphasizing effects pedals over vocals in this fashion was a trademark practice of My Bloody Valentine. Their innovation, however, was their ability to preserve a sense of melody without actually emphasizing the melodic material, creating a sublimely amorphous wash of fuzz with just a hint of singability. A few artists on Half Dreaming cover up the vocals by simply drowning them in the mix, which I think misses the point. There are several cases, however, that are able to capture this delicate, inverted balance.

The wall of sound that is associated with shoegazey music can detach the text from the listener, but it also harbors the potential to liberate as its hazy boundaries spill over and beyond the artists’ desire to subjugate it to their narrative. There are a few tracks, however, that apply this unique aesthetic to a more song-based approach, resulting in a compelling reinterpretation of 60s psudeo-psychedelia.

These tracks were the ones I more readily connected with back when I first got Half Dreaming, and now bring to mind otherworldly recollections of the white limestone walls and immaculate landscaping of that apartment complex.  Armed with a new perspective, however, my recent revisit to the collection has been more unilaterally gratifying.  

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