Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Anna Meredith's Varmints and a Brief Snow

A month ago, the first day of school came and, despite having a good feeling about what will be happening in my bands during the coming semester, I couldn’t say that I was particularly happy about it. I had a wonderful couple of weeks at home with my family and getting used to leaving them behind every day in the midst of the usual morning stress was not appealing. As is often the way with semester preparations, we had two days of staff development to gear up before the students would arrive. On the second day of this scheduled inservice, we got a reprieve. Snow began to fall and my new district, being small and relatively remote, fortunately understands that many of its teachers drive in from other places. It was decided that we would leave early.

So I got a brief extension on my vacation. Austin almost always had more ice than snow, which can certainly shut down a school. It isn’t, however, really all that fun. Up here in North Texas you have the potential to get real snow - the kind that dances across the road rather than pelts the windshield. I was excited about watching P play in the light layer of white powder that was accumulating on the road when I got home.

Snow was swirling across the road like sands across dunes and Anna Meredith’s Varmints, a selection from my Christmas booty, was pulsing strongly, reflecting the white ripples as they cascaded across the blacktop. I put the album on my wishlist last year during my search for a follow-up to Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s astoundingly good EARS. Meredith’s interdisciplinary status as a composer for the BBC and a synth-pop songwriter seemed to put her in the position to fill that void in 2017.

Stylistically, however, the two are apples and oranges. Varmints has an extroverted flourish that is more theatrical when compared to the cerebral atmospheres of EARS.  Like many Ableton-savvy composers, Meredith likes to vary a theme, particularly through rhythmic displacement. Take, for example, the disorienting entry of the backbeat of Nautilus. For four full minutes, the listener is allowed to think that the riff is on the beat, only to find that it is actually on the upbeat, resulting in a perceptual shift of the entire landscape. This kind of rhythmic slight-of-hand shows up several times throughout Varmints and it never seems to get old.  It also allows the album to consistently tread the common zone between between layered songwriting and complex composition.

The distinction between these two extremes is often blurry. Meredith’s experience as a soundtrack composer grants the even the songs that are geared towards accessibility with a heaping tablespoon full of intricacy. She will often use intentional dissonance, using chords that don’t seem to work until after they have passed. Melodically, however, she keeps things light, bringing to mind Neko Case’s contributions to the New Pornographers. As a whole, however, Meredith’s often thunderous rave-inspired beats make Varmints a unique beast, indeed.

It turned out that Denton did not much snow, but it was enough. P got home and went directly outside with her mother to throw snow at each other.  EJ, on the other hand, is not convinced that footwear is so great yet, so I stayed inside with her. When they came in, she told me that P will “always remember this,” and I was really glad that I was there to see it. It was a heart-warming way to spend the last cold day of our vacation.

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