There are two big reasons why SUM/ONE, the solo debut from Gang Gang Dance’s Brian DeGraw, gets the Album Of The Week nod this week. One is a simple matter of timing. The release-date calendar always gets sparse toward the end of the year, and it’s especially glaring this year, when the Eminems and the Britney Spearses of the world have new albums out and everyone else, at every level of music, seems to be scrambling to stay out of their way. In a climate like this, a hit-and-miss affair like SUM/ONE can get attention it might not otherwise get, as long as the hits hit hard enough. And that’s the other reason why I’m writing about SUM/ONE right now. I’m thinking specifically about one hit: “(F.U.T.D.) Time Of Waste,” which has Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor cooing “all I want to do is fuck up the day” over a windblown, propulsive house-music thump. (At first, I thought he was singing “all I want to do is fuck everyday,” which I liked even better.) The song seems to be built entirely around Taylor’s vocal, and that’s because it is; DeGraw has said that Taylor sent him an unused a cappella and that that was his starting point. And so Taylor gets credit for the slinky hook. But DeGraw also does masterful work in layering synth-squelches and conga rattles and echoing backing vocals around that lead vocal. “(F.U.T.D.) Time Of Waste” is as good a Hot Chip song as almost anything on last year’s In Our Heads, and its mere presence is enough to elevate SUM/ONE beyond the “pretty good” level.
The rest of SUM/ONE stalls out at “pretty good” mostly because it doesn’t bring the same blurry mystique as DeGraw’s work with Gang Gang Dance. DeGraw has explained that he put together SUM/ONE alone, in his home studio in upstate New York, doing the whole thing as an experiment in planned-out music. When Gang Gang records, their songs are built from jamming, from improvisation. There’s certainly some disco muscle in their oceanic swirl, and that especially comes across when you see them live. But they seem to arrive at those locked-in dance music grooves organically, almost as if by accident. And maybe I’m overstating the extend to which Gang Gang is a freewheeling, centerless group, but this is, after all, the rare band where it makes perfect sense that a barefoot shamanic dancing hypeman would get to be the guy standing at the center of the stage, or that they’d be the group the Boredoms would handpick when they extended their 77-drummer experiment, a year later, into two different 88-drummer shows happening with two different bands on two different coasts. I went to that 88-drummer Gang Gang show in 2008, and like that first Boredoms show, it was one of those rare magical music experiences where I don’t remember the actual music nearly as much as I remember the feeling of being there. It’s tough to imagine feeling the same way at a bEEdEEgEE solo set.
On his own, DeGraw uses a lot of the same elements as he does in Gang Gang: swirling keyboards, bird-tweet samples, synthetic swirl, harp plucks, big drum kicks. But when he’s recording on his own, there’s a sparse cleanliness to the way DeGraw uses these sounds; it’s almost like they’ve been graphed out. SUM/ONE is also very much a dance music album that thinks of itself as a dance music album. DeGraw puts in a lot of work as a club DJ, and here he’s using a lot of the dubsteppy bass-wobbles and trap-rave synth-strobes that have come to dominate that stuff in recent years. As a result, it’s less like the Gang Gang Dance guy’s dance music project than it is like what might happen if some workmanlike dance music guy went into the studio after listening to nothing but Gang Gang Dance for a week. The same musical ideas are there, but they’re presented in a way that keeps them from achieving the same liftoff you might hear on an album like Eye Contact.
But this isn’t a terrible thing. At its worst, SUM/ONE is perfectly pleasant background music, music that’ll induce subtle head-nods but still blur into the background while you’re on the internet. And at its best, it’s, well, “(F.U.T.D.) Time Of Waste.” But there are other hits here, too. “Overlook” rides a badass rattling Latin-freestyle drum break — the sort of thing Gang Gang would never use in a track — and uses it to layer stuttering samples of hazy vocals, to generally awesome effect. “Flowers” is streaked synthpop with CSS’s Lovefoxxx sounding warmer and happier than I might’ve ever heard her. “Like Rain Man” feeds dub reggae, Ratatat, and a half-buried vocal from Gang Gang singer Lizzi Bougatsos through a sunny prism until they all turn into ideal staring-at-flowers music. None of these tracks will change your life, but in a week when just about nobody is giving us new records, they’ll do just fine.
SUM/ONE is out now on 4AD.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Mutual Benefit’s incandescent, intricately-arranged indie-popper Love’s Crushing Diamond, already out but being reissued for wide release.
• Xiu Xiu’s Nina Simone tribute album Nina.
• Fresh & Onlys side project Magic Trick’s psychedelic, lo-fi River Of Souls.
• Marley Carroll’s bucolic electronic LP Sings.
• I Exist’s hardcore-influenced sludge attack From Darkness.
• The kinda-reunited Black Flag’s inept cash-in move What The…
• Tourist’s Patterns EP.