The air is beginning to smell differently. Trees are beginning to weep. Underage students can now be found on bars stretching from the forehead of Elmwood to the gaudy toes of Chippewa. It can only mean one thing: golden-eyed summer is on its deathbed and with its death comes the passing of our sweaty summer dreams – the ones we realized and the ones that went unfulfilled. Come autumn and through the shoveling contemplations of winter, our hearts are bogged down by the memory of summer’s lo-fi dreams. We’re filled with longing and regret. Soon, a longing for our longings overwhelms us. Soon, we regret all of our regrets. Memory, by its very nature, is lo-fi. This regret and longing we feel are merely echoes. Music has the power to transform memory into something more, into a hi-fi beast that is living and breathing. Not many albums have the power to give the listener the courage to crack open one’s skull, unleash memory, and challenge nostalgia to a fist fight. Xochimilco by Buffalo’s Digital Dog Party, is an album that accomplishes just that. It’s not only the perfect ‘summer is long gone’ album, it’s an album that simultaneously commends and castigates nostalgia and is perfect for those brisk autumn and soon-to-be winter nights.
Upon my first listen, I highlighted the desperate and almost anxiety-fueled vocals, the persistent longing, the lonesome lyrics, and the sporadic static. The album seemed a strange and alluring amalgamation of Daniel Johnston and Youth Lagoon. The album is sparse and minimalist, oftentimes relying primarily on guitar and vocals. While it would be easy to label Xochimilco as low- fi bedroom pop, it would ultimately be a disservice. The album is an ambient novel of sorts, illuminating a dreamlike journey through the pill-splattered recesses of both the singer and listener’s mind where nostalgia is the primary antagonist. Nostalgia, after all, is debilitative and though beautiful, it must be dealt with accordingly. That, I feel, is the thematic battle of Xochimilco and because of this, I would make the argument that Digital Dog Party, the lone project of Enrique Ruiz, has created a concept album of sorts. I always associate “ambient music,” particularly the sound stylings of Youth Lagoon, with the Midwest and Pacific. Or better yet, “west of here…any west will do.” But with Xochimilco, Ruiz captures the dreamlike desperation of this region – the crazed spontaneity of the Scajaquada, the noose-induced melancholy of the Peace Bridge, Allentown’s communal angst – and filters all of it through his mind and “bedroom.” We are ambient too; it’s in our blood. “We are ambient!” is a phrase worthy of screaming on weekend street corners.
Of his music, Ruiz writes on Soundcloud, “When I write music, I usually piece together memories or feelings I once had. I really wish to create ambient story telling songs.” Xochimilco is indeed an ambient piece of storytelling. The vocals and guitars do not stand out on their own, but rather, they seamlessly mold into one another. On some songs, he strums his vocal cords like a guitar. On other songs, he moans his guitar as if it were his voice. In other words, they are one in the same and thus one unique instrument. The album’s at its strongest when the songs are stripped of their subtleties (no overabundance of dreamy fuzz) and there are no walls between singer and listener. One such song, a personal favorite of mine, is “This Faithful Night.” Employing an almost ambient and lo-fi flamenco guitar style, Ruiz achingly performs psychoanalysis on himself. Cataloging in a Dylan-like fashion all the painful nights, cheaters, liars, children, and lovers in the world, Ruiz concludes that “I’d rather die than love again.” The song is cohesive and moves slowly and softly. It is lo-fi confessional pop at its finest. Here is a musician sitting on the edge of the abyss and we are sitting right alongside him.
This self-conscious and ambient narrative is really the glue that holds the entire album together. The narrative of “This Faithful Night” persists in other songs. One such song is “What I Think of Me,” a dark and frantic look inward. I see it as a companion piece to “This Faithful Night.” The guitar is more of the focus on this song; it’s in your face, providing a nice foundation, while Ruiz ruminates on freedom (mental freedom? emotional freedom? spiritual freedom?). It is, perhaps, one of the songs that most exemplifies not only the album’s lo-fi sound, but Daniel Johnston comparisons as well. While the guitar is more at the forefront, the vocals do not merely shirk away into the background. It is a frantic battle between voice and instrument and by song’s end, they do become one and the franticness is unified. It is interesting to note that the album does have two sets of songs – those that focus on the singer’s mental makeup and those focus on the world’s mental makeup. Ambiance is used more so in songs that reach outward, whereas less ambiance is used in songs that pull inward. One would imagine that ambiance would be used more in those songs that pull inward. It is an intriguing change, one I’ll happily label as a distinctly Rust Belt phenomenon.
We are ambient and we are now. We are lo-fi and we are now. This is the soundtrack for those nights you sit at the edge of your bed, bare-knuckle boxing feelings of nostalgia, while the whole world is seemingly dancing outside of your bedroom. This is the sound of anxiety. This is the sound the heart makes when it melts into blood. This is the sound the mind makes when it crumbles into neuroses. It is due time we all confess our sins in the vein of Xochimilco.
Review by Justin Karcher