Yes, plagiarism police – I wrote the Bank Robber blurb too.
(Dead Oceans, 2011)
Opening fist-pumper “Keep Time” examines the two sides of Gauntlet Hair, two sides that work together to coalesce into an exciting whole throughout the Denver band’s self-titled debut for Dead Oceans. It begins with a barrage of echoed noise, crash symbols and heavily reverbed guitar, and shouted vocals, and as such I expected the band to tread closer to Japandroids or No Age territory as the song got rolling. But no, they pull back a little and drop in a programmed beat, over top of which a clean (albeit still reverbed to hell) guitar lays a rhythm closer to Animal Collective territory than I would have anticipated. And then, too, the vocals soar in a beautiful Brain Wilson–via–Panda Bear melody that just melts in your earbuds. Don’t worry – real drums make their return, and the crescendos are cathedral-big when they’re on.
I guess I just didn’t know what to expect with Gauntlet Hair, and this was my initiation. (I’m totally digging them by the way.) I liked the idea that they were in Japandroids territory at some level (the duo thing, plus the full sound) but that they didn’t sound just like Japandroids. In fact let’s get this Japandroids comparison out of the way right now and be done with it. Although, I did write a blurb about the album calling Gauntlet Hair “Japandroids meets INXS – oh my God, I got so giddy just typing that.” I really did – I’m an INXS homer, for better or worse, and the thought of pairing that scratchy, echoey INXS-style guitar with the Denver duo’s modern approach to pop music was too delicious to ignore. And “My Christ” even recalls “New Sensation” in its chordage – you can hate on that all you want, but I’m hanging on for dear life. It’s fun, guys! Get with it!
But the more I listen to the record, the more the Animal Collective similarities move to the forefront, and I wonder how intentional that comparison was supposed to be. I’m not terribly familiar with the Denver scene, so I’m unfortunately not the best authority on how it plays into the duo’s sound. (Am I breaking a major journalistic rule by admitting I’m not an expert on something? If so, I take it back – I am expert.) According to Andy R and Craig Nice’s bio page on the Dead Oceans site (nice stage names, by the way – seriously, those are pretty good), their closest contemporaries include Pictureplane, Woodsman, and Hollagramz, and I’m sure they’re all very nice (I’m only familiar with Pictureplane). Did R and Nice catch an AC set at Red Rocks and decide to incorporate pieces of their sound as homage, or did they organically take on certain characteristics? (A better question: Did Animal Collective ever play Red Rocks? And the previous question completely ignores the fact that Gauntlet Hair are actually recent Denver transplants from Chicago – they even recorded their album in the Windy City.)
I think all this influence-spotting is ignoring the fact that Gauntlet Hair is a pretty damn good album, and an excellent debut. The boys truly figured out how to sound like waaay more than two dudes recording stuff together, as they slather pretty much all their instruments and vocals in healthy amounts of echo. I mean it, they literally just goop that stuff on everything, like it was pomade and their record was the tallest pompadour in the world. They’ve coated it all, and it’s a beautiful thing, a perfect recording choice for the buoyant guitar and crisp programming, as well as for the huge drum sound. “Top Bunk” feels like a glorious dream floating horizontally to the titular bed, and shimmering waves emanate from the atmosphere to greet you. It’s sprawling, epic pop music. I’m even inspired to create a genre for Gauntlet Hair: shout-along shimmergaze. Guys, take it, make it yours.
R and Nice know how to switch it up a little too, and the shifts make for a compelling listen. I love the fact that I can bop along to the sugary upbeat “That’s Your Call” like I was wandering through a David Lee Roth video or something – there’s a skip in its step that’s indubitably infectious. (Although now that I think about it, there’s more snow and coats in my happy-go-lucky mind-video for the song – no California bikini models or anything.) And “Showing” could be the band’s Say Anything boombox moment, a ballad full of longing and heartbreak that’s sure to melt the hearts of the Ione Skyes of the world. I dare any of you reading this column to try that. Let me know how it goes. In the end, keep an eye on Gauntlet Hair – nifty things are afoot for them.
RIYL: Japandroids, Animal Collective, INXS