Review Summary: Dredg's fourth album is a centaur of pop and art that walks with a limp but has a heart of gold.
When Dredg released El Cielo
in 2002, it wasn't met with much negative criticism. It was a breath a fresh air for those disenchanted with the places popular rock had been in the preceding years (remember nu-metal?) yet also satisfied most indie aficionados. It even invoked old-school psychedelia, satisfying all but those those who felt like music died with Syd Barrett. However, one negative perspective rings out in my mind. Ignoring the typical journalistic strutting of the writing, this review (http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/2450-el-cielo/) has keen insight into the true character of El Cielo
; it is unabashedly an "art" album that seeks excellence through grandiosity and by expanding borders rather than by refining and revising ideas. This gravity is what made 2005's Catch Without Arms
surprising. Dredg crafted a sensational album by carefully choosing elements from their more experimental and wandering early days and packaging them in concise alt-rock gems that blew the listener away with efficacy and meticulousness rather than their forays into the unknown. After proving they could compose both an art album and a pop album, Dredg had a blank canvas and a frighteningly hungry fan base. Throughout the writing and recording of The Pariah, the Parrot, the Delusion
, this fan base devoured acoustic demos and live performances only to be disappointed. The punchy electronics of "Saviour" lacked elegance and the lyrics seemed to be crafted with an active disdain for being poetic. Regardless of this overt poppiness, "Saviour" was anything but, and felt like a failed attempt at experimenting with electronic production. Dredg, despite their clean sheet, had steadily built up negative hype around their release. Effectively, they unsold the vacuum cleaner they had spent the past eleven years selling.
Now that The Pariah, the Parrot, the Delusion
is finally out, most fans, myself included, are a little ashamed we doubted these crunchy geniuses from Los Gatos, but are left feeling Dredg's balance of pop and art, something that for all of its variance had never before been in question, is now off its axis. The album is formatted like El Cielo
with longer, traditionally structured tracks interspersed with flavorful, instrumental jams. However, when Dredg are banging out their longer songs, instead of the serene contemplative progressions of El Cielo
, there are songs more akin to those on Catch Without Arms
, for how they aim for more closed-sounding chord voicings, the regularized repetition of a verse-chorus-verse structure, and obvious melodic hooks and rhythmic build-ups. Previously where open major 9 chords floated over groovy basslines, there are now much more deterministic chords that always point back to their chorus melody. When "I Don't Know" breaks down into its bridge and subsequently builds itself back up cuing the re-entry of the chorus with the catchy "No, I don't know," the execution and flow is flawless and entertaining if also a retread. Pariah
's tendency to fall back on familiar idioms in their fully-fledged songs also pollutes their shorter, instrumental tracks like "Drunk Slide" and "Long Days and Vague Cities." I mean this as counterintuitively as possible though; instead of jamming out on neat ideas and rendering these ideas with clarity of focus but a strong sense of experimentation, Dredg seem to be content to experiment for its own sake and let these songs become more rhythmically and texturally driven, which worked well with their slower El Cielo
vibe but feels aggravated and out of place when sped up into barn burners. The only tracks that are fully exempt from repeating ideas on previous Dredg albums are the "Stamp of Origin" tracks, which are little narrative tracks that serve as beautiful vignettes that adjoin unusually paired songs like "Ireland" and "Lightswitch." After El Cielo
, Dredg were no longer the same sagacious psychedelic band, but now that we're past Catch Without Arms
, Dredg seem hung up on their capacity to be both poppy and experimental, which casts an identity crisis on the album that makes Pariah
hard to swallow as an entire unit, whether a seamless epic experience or a collection of riveting songs.
Despite suffering at a higher-level due to the patchwork rehemming of Dredg's two antipodal sides, Pariah
gets better and better the more one granularly segments its musical components. There are some jaw-dropping tracks on this album. "Ireland" is a soaring ballad. "Lightswitch" adjoins dry, Americana verses and its lush, exoticized outro with these soft, emotive interludes that are as effective as any on Catch Without Arms
. "Information," a wistful but powerful pop song, reminds me of what U2 would sound like if they were actually good, replete with shimmering guitar and tambourine. "Cartoon Showroom" is one of the more delicate songs I've ever heard. The album's final beauty, "Quotes," has an absolutely crushing bridge. As much as Pariah
may feel lacking as an album, there is nothing bad that can be said about its truly amazing songs. On top of everything is Gavin's gorgeous voice, which hasn't lost its celestial tone over the years. His invocation of Jeff Buckley's falsetto on "Cartoon Showroom" is shiver-inducing. The other instrumental performances, while less upstaging, are equally valuable. In particular, Dino's drumming is always detailed and unconventional, even when plugging away at a 4/4 disco beat. The production is stellar as well. The level of detail that is in this album is unheard of in comparably poppy records. The slide guitars that populate the album are handled in an awesome way, capturing all of the groove and smear of a slide without sounding hokey. There's enough echo to fill a canyon. Violins, vibes, and other texturally varied and satisfying instruments swoop into the mix without any obvious emphasis or presence, but rather as compatriots of Dredg's eclectic feel. As a reviewer for Alternative Press once claimed when reviewing a Deftones album, there are probably even sounds only dogs can hear.
The most important takeaway when listening to The Pariah, the Parrot, the Delusion
is that however centaurian the album as a whole may be, Dredg are a truly special group. No other bands are working with the same styles and ideas, and those that are comparable certainly don't do so with the same finesse. Pariah
is a lopsided inroad to Dredg's genius, but its an inroad nonetheless, which is all that matters when considering Dredg's rare and wonderful singularity.