I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.
(Rack and Ruin, 2009)
Sometime in 2009, young Ciaran Hoogendoorn (holy Dutch-Irish heritage!) figured out he was pretty adept at making lo-fi bedroom pop, after experimenting with loops and feedback and home recording techniques. Quietly puttering about the house yielded the beautiful little Are Empty (actually Western Homes Are Empty, but who am I to argue with naming conventions?), Ireland’s entry into the glo-fi and chillwave arenas. (Well, it’s not really like it’s a competition or something. Although it could be. Maybe we need an international bracket-style music tournament. It could be hosted by the UN. The winning country gets all the oil.) Not quite an EP, its nine songs clock in at at around 24 minutes, stretching the definition of the mini-album. But it’s definitely worth the listen – you can certainly set aside a small slice of your day to plug in your headphones and eat lunch in the park, or whatever.
I’ve actually come up with a new genre for this album: shoebox-gaze. (See? I’m a trendsetter.) I can easily imagine sliding an old shoebox out from under the bed, filled with letters and pictures, trinkets, notebook scribblings and a few old cassette tapes, painstakingly labeled. Popping one of these tapes into an old deck and pressing play yields a soft hiss, spare synthetic drum tracking, battery-powered keyboard, and a bit of acoustic guitar. The vocals are low and buried in the mix, but the gentle melodies are still easy to make out. It’s at once oddly recognizable and comforting, like discovering an old sweater you find packed away that’s still as big and warm as you remember it. It’s easy to pick apart the recording process, as each track reveals itself simply and gracefully, and though it seems like anyone with a predilection for home recording and a legal pad full of song ideas could make a record like this, Western Homes knows it takes more. The intimacy of Western Homes Are Empty, coupled with the notion that the listener finds the songs so inviting and familiar, is its winning charm – it almost feels like a revelation that you wrote the songs that you’re listening to. Crazy, huh?
The record is sequenced well, and the songs flow in and out of scratchy pop and warm ambiance with ease. There’s also a decided sense of hiding from the world that pervades the album – fitting for a bedroom creation. “Protect Me from Sunlight” starts it off, the plea in its title and drum-machine-and-keyboard composition establishing the album’s feel, and it transitions perfectly into the placid keyboard tones of “Underground Car Park Is My New Home.” “2009… (A Merman I Will Become in Time),” possibly my favorite song on the record, is also the poppiest. Hoogendoorn (yes that was a copy and paste) then covers the Jacobites “Silver Street” without much more than an acoustic guitar. (The Jacobites were Nikki Sudden’s post-Swell Maps band – I know I’ve heard this song somewhere, but I can’t quite place it….) It fits the oeuvre nicely.
“Hospital Corridors” is the album’s centerpiece, and it’s the perfect combination of the bedroom pop and ambient soundscapes. “Ice Sheet on My Bed” takes it down a notch as the pop is stripped, setting the stage for the more upbeat “Girl with a Glass Eye + Synthesizers.” Western Homes duck the sunlight again with “The Alley Beside Tower Records,” a track similar to “Underground Car Park,” only to resurface with the weird closer “Cellar Beast/Dungeon Monster,” a brief, 1:13-long keyboard bop with fake casio drums. There’s something for everyone interested in lo-fi here.
Are you ready for lazy autumn weekend afternoons, but can’t think of anything to listen to? Well, then consider the internet your bed, Rack and Ruin Records your shoebox, and Western Homes Are Empty that long-forgotten tape. Download here. Now open the shades, lay back in a sunbeam, and breathe deeply. You’re welcome.
RIYL: Atlas Sound, Small Black, Grandaddy