Youth Lagoon : Wondrous Bughouse

Posted: February 27, 2013 by Matthew Bailey in Loud Music
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Listen to Wondrous Bughouse HERE (courtesy of NPR First Listen)

Trevor Power’s bedroom pop debut Year of Hibernation harnessed a character that was equal parts timidity and ambition.  A delicate conversation between simple piano hooks and distorted guitar, it’s scratchy lo-fi mix was as reserved as it’s narrator’s vocals, with Powers’ shy voice often beginning with a whisper.  It felt like meeting a kid who wanted to show you the song he wrote, only for crippling stage fright to set in once he started playing it.  Even the moments where he did cut loose and wail sounded straight from the throat instead of his belly, never fully abandoning a feeling of apprehension.  The result was emotional and fragile, with powerful hooks filling the void where Power’s voice couldn’t muster the strength.

Although it met nearly unanimous acclaim and became one of the true indie staples of 2011, it was impossible not to wonder what the logical next step could be.  The two man show (with guitarist Logan Hyde)  had lots of room to grow, but he had to be careful not to lose the empathetic aesthetic that made Hibernation so likeable.  Youth Lagoon’s follow up Wonderous Bughouse deserves merit for realizing a progressive step needed to be taken, but their sophomore effort may have waxed the paint right off.

From the dusty opening instrumental “Through My Mind and Back”, Powers builds bridge between the two albums, acknowledging the debut’s rustic mix, but adding depth and mystery before blowing open the proverbial doors on “Mute”.  A beautiful track that sounds cleaner than any of his previous releases, it’s immediately clear he’s decided to take a gigantic step forward from a production standpoint.  If Hibernation was a story told from his bedroom, Powers is walking down the street telling this story to the entire town.  The tone of the album is optimistic, maintaining the grandiose instrumental statements from the debut.  His thin voice is still cast from the echo chamber, but it’s decidedly assertive in tone. What’s also apparent from “Mute” is that the conversation between the keys and guitar is over.

The album is chalked full of sonic richness, if not borderline distraction.  We’re blindsided with spacey bleeps and bloops (professional term, folks) without adding any real context to the songs.  Remove those production spices from a track like “The Bath” and we’d see his creative vision much more clear.  What’s most damning is the wave of sound often buries Powers’ vocals in the mix, making his lyrics indiscernible and ignoring the character that made Hibernation an instant classic.  The head scratching waltz of “Attic Doctor” and the overproduction of “Bath” make for a concerning side one.

And then the clouds begin to open up.  There’s no ignoring the piano melodies, and when his vocal claws it’s way through the fog, it’s everything we hoped this album could be.  “Pelican Man” serves as a perfect marriage between his signature rudimentary piano lines and the suddenly orchestral arrangements.  The vocal pierces through the dense instrumental, and Powers’ progressive vision is realized.  “Dropla” serves as an obvious first single — a track that serves as a perfect transition from the touching narrative of Hibernation, to the all encompassing production of Bughouse.  The percussion is also notably fuller (“Dropla”, “Raspberry Cane”) with grooves instead of simple downbeats, and a newfound emphasis on cymbals — an element noticeably absent on Hibernation.  Yet, the album again returns to the ambiguity that plagued earlier tracks.  The closer “Daisyphobia” serves as an accurate reference point for the effort as a whole.  The gorgeous chord structure is there, and Powers brief vocal section stands out above all else, but the majority of the track is synth heavy filler.  The album ends without Powers telling us goodbye, and by the way the album began it felt like he hardly said hello.  Bughouse is undoubtedly a conscious step forward, but he might have walked from his bedroom straight into the woods.

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