One of my favorite monikers of 2012 thus far is “The Year of White Fence.” I believe Permanent Records Chicago/L.A. coined that phrase, and it’s an accurate description of White Fence’s reception this year. Tim Presley’s project includes critically acclaimed 2012 offerings Family Perfume (Vols. I and II; Woodsist), and Hair (Drag City), recorded with Ty Segall. Presley’s efforts landed him in garage rock’s highest circle, with both critical and (relative?) commercial success following (commercial success insofar as Presley holds two of Revolver/Midheaven’s top sellers in 2012, as well as a strong seller on Insound). In an era where many note that rock artists proliferate in numerous directions, the prospects for the off-center American garage rock movement look increasingly paisley.
A close friend of mine once argued that the logical endpoint of psychedelic music is country rock. Drawing on the great tradition of 1960s urban, acid bands that followed short-lived rocking careers with moves to country sensibilities (foreshadowing 1970s introversion), the argument is compelling in pointing out the limits of psychedelic rock’s gimmicks. One can only dress folk or rhythm and blues song structures in so many shades of reverb or layers of studio trickery before they feel drawn to the internal logic of their songs or songwriting approaches. If the draw of psychedelic rock is the promise of mind-manifesting journeys of self-actualization or exploration, the dropout is individual isolation or exploration that exhausts the supports of psychedelic communities in favor of pure, brooding loner rock.
I disagreed with my friend ages ago, citing continuous developments in acid music that suggest new, advanced layers (or at least new tricks or songwriting foundations that move from folk and rhythm and blues structures to heavier, sludgy bases for studio debauchery). At the very least, I felt that there were enough variations of psychedelic rock to lead it to be a self-sustaining enterprise. Now I am not so sure — despite the deathgrip of “shoegaze” or “noise pop,” if we dig far enough, we can probably find a veritable country shift in the broad, American psychedelic movement of the last few years. One might argue that this shift is as logical as the 1970s inward shift, as general American political vitriol once again drives an insulated nation into further strands of individualism and self-sustaining survival (are you ready for the country?).
Tim Presley is the musical key to this shift. In 2010, Presley penned a sizable portion of Darker My Love’s LP, Alive as You Are (Dangerbird), an album that followed the death of his father and marked a blissful shift in production for the quintet. After the robust fuzz blasts, chugging rhythms, and rich key embellishments of their studio-psych excursion 2 (Dangerbird), Darker My Love threw aside their layered production in favor of surprisingly direct recording techniques and honest, transparent song structures. Shocking in its lack of fuzz and overt acid studio techniques, Presley and the gang successfully engaged understated psychedelic themes in a logical antidote to their previous songs.
At the time, critics found Alive as You Are to be largely derivative, focusing on its mid-era Beatles references and freewheelin’ attitude that channeled Workingman’s Dead. Years ago, these criticisms missed other elements of the album — Alive as You Are was at least as many parts Teenage Fanclub and The Pretty Things as The Grateful Dead or Beatles, which proves nothing more than itemizing pop music influences is an infinite task that will last as long as pop musicians deliver their tomes in structured time and statements. In the wake of the critical success of White Fence, these criticisms serve as an exceptional challenge to the blindspots of music critics; the challenge is, quite simply, to move beyond the tides of the current time to find truths, valuable experiences, and inspiration in music.
American garage rock is derivative to its core; the same can be said for American psychedelic music. Music critics can work to catalog each and every reference in each album that is remotely “garage” or “psychedelic.” In fact, we could probably fill most of our reviews by referring our readers to common points — “these guitars recall Rubber Soul’s expansive folk,” or “the band manipulated tape to invoke the spirit of private press albums,” etc.
White Fence and Darker My Love are no different in this way; both projects use maverick energy to tickle their listeners’ memories to guide them around the new corners that are always ready to be turned within old American traditions. Yet, within the span of three years, Tim Presley’s major projects have moved from critically-questioned paisley country to critically-acclaimed paisley pop, with Presley himself drawing on similar quadrants of pop music to construct meaning and signposts for listeners. Extending the references for his most recent albums beyond the 1960s worship to his own previous band, one can find a logical continuation of Darker My Love’s march through mind-manifesting music.
Music critics can learn a lot about music by analyzing these types of shifts in their own appraisals. By focusing too much on finding common reference points, and not enough on the inherent creativity, inspiration, or motives behind each project, critics run the risk of serving the tastes of their time instead of engaging the artist’s work. Certainly one cannot expect to escape their times entirely, and critics will always be indebted to the attitudes of their own era to some extent — for instance, the fact that I am writing in an era with declining corporate labels and proliferating independent and private labels clearly defines the very terms of my opportunity to write for Foxy Digitalis, and my opportunity to explore increasingly rare, small scale, and outsider musical forms. The distinction I am looking to establish is one of attitude — by looking beyond the derivative aspects of music and into the creative goals or the listening experience itself, music critics have the potential to truly engage with their subjects and perhaps interact with intuitive, inexplicable, and unquantifiable elements of the music.
Questioning reviews of similarly-minded albums that receive different critical responses presents valuable opportunities for music critics to reflect on their role and their engagement with their times. If you’re reading about music here, perhaps you like neither White Fence nor Darker My Love; perhaps you like various albums by one project or the other (or maybe you like everything both projects produced). I’m interested in knowing, “why is White Fence critically acclaimed when Alive as You Are was not?,” because I am interested in knowing my own blindspots and understanding my own attitudes about music. The general idea doesn’t stop here, though, and we can apply these principles to experimental albums, outsider albums, etc.
If you haven’t figured it out by this point, I’m a huge fan of Tim Presley’s songwriting, and I think that we can listen to Darker My Love’s last album and see the first blueprint for Presley’s current project. It is obvious that Presley was ahead of his time when Darker My Love released Alive as You Are, and while albums like Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest were praised by some as generational signposts in 2010, I think Alive as You Are stands as an equally valid entry into “Most Important Albums of the Decade” discussions about pop music. Darker My Love went to the country before many of their acid-burned peers, providing a guidebook for moving beyond studio manipulations to direct production.
If we can learn from the critical reception between Darker My Love’s final LP and White Fence’s most recent work, perhaps we can prepare to work with the truths, inspiration, and experience of music. Hopefully we can keep our minds open and our ears flexible enough to see beyond our times as much as possible, and find the value in the best pieces of music.