Saturday, December 8, 2012

Baths - Cerulean (older review)

I used to publish the bulk of my reviews in my old high school's online newsletter, which has deleted all but a handful of my reviews after extensive renovations.  This is one of the reviews; I posted it here because a lot of people particularly like this review as well as because Cerulean by Baths is increasingly becoming one of my all-time favorite albums.  I will probably write a new review of Cerulean soon.


It’s not easy to find real “protest music” these days.  The term, once used to describe the rousing, unifying anthems of the Civil Rights and Vietnam eras, is now synonymous with lower-middle-aged millionaires railing about the economy and evil corporations while the Samsung logo flashes on the three-hundred-foot Jumbotrons above their heads at the arena.  The best “protest music” not only tempers this anger with hope, it also provides a sympathetic portrayal of the victims of whatever injustice the music may target.  This is what Will Wiesenfeld is out to do on Cerulean, which, in spite of having almost no lyrics, is one of the best protest records I’ve heard in a long time.

Wiesenfeld, a 21-year-old, openly gay SoCal resident, has plenty to protest about.  This album was released in the wake of the passing of Proposition 8, re-prohibiting gay marriage in California after its short-but-sweet period of legality.  And if you’ve heard any bullshit about how nobody in California is going to discriminate against you based on your sexuality (presumably from a straight person who pretends to be tolerant but harbors a subconscious and almost superstitious prejudice), think again.  As a seventeen-year-old gay kid living in what is supposedly the most LGBT-friendly city on earth, I know there are always too many exceptions, and I can more than identify with what Wiesenfeld sings about.

The songs on this album that most overtly address this issue are “Plea” and the excellent “<3.” “Plea,” a passionately furious song that ends with a reminder that “we’re still not valid,” is chilling.  “<3,” over a fluttering piano loop and a stormy-ocean beat, is an elopement ballad that ends not in tragedy but in liberation (“Met in the night like it was wrong/Laugh at the life left now that we’re gone/I won’t go back/I love you too much”).  But what makes this a protest record, not just an album with two songs about being discriminated against on it, is the sympathy and complexity of Wiesenfeld’s gay characters and the elaborate love stories Wiesenfeld spins with as few words as possible.  “Rain Smell” describes a sad memory of a lover evoked by water, set to a background that evokes a row on a creek in the rain.  “You’re My Excuse To Travel” is a romantic tune delivered in inarticulate teenage slang and run through piercing digital effects.  And “Maximalist,” arguably Wiesenfeld’s mission statement, consists of a funky, aggressive beat interrupted time to time by samples of dialogue about matters of the heart.  This is not an album about queer love--this is an album simply about love, and how nothing can or should stop it.

Lyrics aside, the music used to support Wiesenfeld’s pleas is remarkably skillfully crafted, if nothing groundbreaking.  The most obvious feature of Baths’ music is the rhythm.  This is neither dance nor ambient music--this is simply very percussive electronic music, built around funky cross-rhythms and clattering beats.  The filtered and effected samples (the piano on “<3,” the tender guitar on “Aminals”) have more to do with chillwave than anything else, although Wiesenfeld’s music lacks the haziness and laziness felt in the music of Washed Out or Toro Y Moi.  Appearing every now and again is Wiesenfeld’s voice, a Mel Blanc falsetto that often sounds comical but is used to great effect (the sensual yelps on lead single “Lovely Bloodflow”).
Those I know who have seen Wiesenfeld perform live describe him as an awkward, mild-mannered guy who hops onstage, sheepishly says something like “Hi, I’m Baths, how’s everyone doing?” and proceeds to rip the roof off the club.  I’ve never seen a Baths show for some reason, but I am not surprised in the least by this description--on Cerulean, Wiesenfeld comes across as the kind of dude who could beat the shit out of you if he wanted to (his muscular music) but would much rather just give you a giant hug and tell you how much he loves you (his voice and lyrics).  He’s not hard to love back, and neither is his music.  

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