Tag Archives: justin karcher

[Review: Digital Dog Party, ‘Xochimilco’]

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


[Review: Phillips/Borden, ‘System Vandross’]

This is what it sounds like after Icarus falls…

Pardon the cliché, but music should be a journey of some kind.  Ideally, you should be at a different place by an album’s end than you were at the start.  Nowadays, too many musicians release albums that are riddled with a kind of disjointedness – all parts and not enough of a whole.  Having a fulfilling musical journey is somewhat impossible under such circumstances.  While I am not making the argument for concept albums, I am however making the case for a certain sense of thematic cohesion that will undoubtedly deflower the soul.  We have reached an unsatisfactory point in culture in which many, if not all of us, live life in blips and parts.  The bigger picture, whatever that may mean, eludes us and we are consequentially fragmented.  Musicians and music in general should go against the social fragmentation and make us whole, if only for a moment.  System Vandross, the new album from Buffalo cello-turntable duo Phillips-Borden, accomplishes just that.

At first, I did not know what to make of System Vandross.  I admired its rough frankness, how it lulled me into a ragged dream state.  I enjoyed the seesaw battle between cello and turntable, unsure if the battle was a cohesive one.  Am I mistaken?  I asked myself.  The musicians are certainly accomplished, able to illuminate the potential irregularity of the cello (played by TJ Borden) and forlorn fluidity of the turntable (played by Rob Phillips), but for what purpose?  Uncertain at first of the journey Phillips-Borden were embarking on, I needed to take a step back.  I poured myself a glass of Pinot Noir and lit up a cigarette, taking in the nighttime that twirled about me.  Then it hit me: System Vandross is night music.  Upon said revelation, I sighed.  Describing music as “night music” has always felt like a copout to me.  It’s like when someone describes a particular song as “experimental,” it irks me; what exactly does that mean?  In my opinion, all music is experimental, but not all music is intended for the night.  In short, Phillips-Borden has created fulfilling cohesion out of irregularity and forlorn fluidity.

“Matchstick Arbitrage,” one of the album’s standouts, is a stunning deconstruction of musical and emotional anxiety.  Right off the bat, there is an overreaching sense of calmness, the calm before the storm, so to speak.  The cello, fixed firmly in the ground, provides the foundation allowing the turntable to explore the area all around.  While the cello is jagged and frantic, the turntable is pulsating and airy.  It is the juxtaposition between the two that creates, dare I say, a post-apocalyptic mental dancehall.  The song moves at an almost-quicksand pace.  You’re teased into thinking that an explosion will happen and though it never quite does, you’re certain of one thing: anxiety itself is an explosion, one that keeps half of you firmly planted in the ground and the other half chaotically swimming through space.  When listening to “Matchstick Arbitrage,” we should dance…but not quite.  We should move…but not quite.  Sure-footed hesitation is a remarkable and strange feeling, one that aptly sums up “Matchstick Arbitrage” as well as the album as a whole.  Try listening to the song and not have your brain dance out of your skull.

There is a tension that pulsates throughout the album: between inaction and action, redemption and damnation, between earth and air, indelibly executed by cello and turntable, courtesy of Phillips-Borden. Throughout the album, cello and turntable often switch roles.  While in “Matchstick Arbitrage” the cello provides the foundation whereas the turntable roams free.  In other songs, the turntable is the foundation.  There is always a freeing gap present.  System Vandross is the gap in-between two unreachables; Philips-Borden flings us into it, much like Icarus in his ill-fated and sun-drenched quest.  It is no wonder then that there is a song entitled “Fall of Icarus redux” on the album.  The song, a particular favorite of mine, begins in a cultish fashion, reminding one of a darkening pasture at the witching hour, a frenzied flock of shepherds swaying and chanting.  It is ghostly, cello and turntable exposing and exploiting each other’s limitations.  The turntable, open-ended, gives way to the cello’s narrow jaggedness.  Together, the two instruments create a doomed dance, rhythmically painting a portrait of poor Icarus’s flight.  By song’s end, we know for sure that Icarus has crash-landed.  But, but, but—not all hope is lost!  Thematically and musically, System Vandross is not an album about doomed flights but, rather, what happens after those doomed flights, when a new kind of hopefulness begins to settle in and the world around you is fresher than it was before.  Sometimes, we must expose and exploit each other’s limitations.  Through this, one may achieve a sense of fulfillment and wholeness.

System Vandross is most certainly a battle between cello and turntable, but that battle turns into a dance.  And that dance into a doomed flight.  Before we know it, the landscape around us is different and for the better.  And so we too must battle, dance, and fly.  Open up your ears and eyes, for that matter, and be like Icarus after his flight.  Give System Vandross a listen.


Review by Justin Karcher