bought Hefner’s Dead Media at a small independent record store in downtown Minneapolis, and the first night I heard it, it was background static, a small synthetic hum under the growl of a night’s beer drinking and Xbox Madden football games at my apartment. I was barely digesting any of it, but those rare beer-spliced moments seemed to bode well. It was like the Postal Service’s album, which is still one of my favorites from the year. Or so I thought.
On my way to work the next morning, I played it again and as the album burned through and I arrived at my fallout shelter/parking garage, my confusion was understandable. What had I been listening to the night before? Where were those sounds, splitting past in a delusional moment, which had sounded so goddamn interesting the night before? Was it the Pabst? Having heard it now several times, I realize of course that this second listen removed the gleam in the most natural way: direct confrontation. Gone were the smoky conversational hazes and the late night ways one has of making novelties from routines. I was avoiding the traffic and needed something to draw my attention as I went out of my way to do so. I can tolerate spans of tedium if I’m reading Infinite Jest in front of the music. If the album moves into the foreground, it has to be compelling throughout, with allowances made for one or two blunders. The album began to suffer from this direct exposure because it succumbs to the same pitfalls as Hood’s Cold House: a hesitation to commit oneself completely to transformation. In essence, the album exudes a sense of a metamorphosis caught in its midst and prevented from developing. It begins to wilt with tedium as it continues, as the drum machines and synthesizers give way to unimaginative organic instrumentation and bland, stale melodies. Their past albums have featured more standard pop accoutrements and instrumentation, and Hefner seems unwilling to completely abandon them.
But, as I said, all begins quite well. From the first electronic tones of the opening title track, it is clear this is a new morning for Hefner and the sun is bright enough to give you a squint headache. At least musically. “Trouble Kid” snarls in with scratchy guitar and alternating squeals of casio-noise with the clipped sound of a child (or it could be Woody Allen from the helium-voiced chase scene in Broadway Danny Rose) chanting “Hi.” It’s just catchy enough to avoid being saccharine, at least the first few times around. There is no tension here; bring out the Mister Misties.
Track three, “Junk”, is one of the disc’s highlights, backing down from the technological thrust of the first two tracks just a bit with slow, warbling synths and quiet, dead-of-night organ beside its mellow, country-day horns. From there, Hefner follow with another entrancing track, the cursedly-titled “When the Angels Play the Drum Machines,” which starts with an elastic-band electrostomp beat and a tangerine-sweet melody that smells of mist and drives in the oilslick of night. When Darren Haymen suggests “Let’s push away the world outside,” I’m well ahead of him.
“Union Chapel Day” is the first sign of the restlessness to come. One minute of featureless electronic noodling. To self-flagellate in such a way once would be forgivable, but there are two more of these wretched distractions to come. When the slow plodding bass starts on “China Crisis,” I begin to writhe. The electronics are turned off, and the organic bass slowly bleeds into a fey, amelodic Belle and Sebastian amalgam. Unpardonable. This is a must-skip track, and I, too, am beginning to fidget. What has become of this album? Track six and we’re in the Moors.
Fortunately, for better or worse, Hefner have one more beauty in store. “Peppermint Patty” is absolutely hypnotic, despite its common first-love-come-betrayal tale. The Super Mario Brothers casio sounds and sing-a-long melody ensnare me from the beginning. This is pop music that satisfies my occasional desire for mindlessness. Tangy escapism indeed! Let’s have it! Still, my instant approval causes me some chagrin; I think it must be related to my fondness for old Donovan records (I love that damnable “I Love My Shirt” from Barabajagal!). Maybe I should get a pogostick and join the Phishheads.
After twenty seconds of electronic blustering on “The Mangle,” the album dissolves in a parched desert husk. “The King of Summer” is a country-and-western swing number that’s as interesting as overhearing a stranger describe his Buick Regal. Yeah, I’ve seen one. I think. When “The Nights Are Long” opens, stripped to its rolling bass and lightly strummed acoustic guitar, I’ve forgotten this album ever interested me. The melody is just buoyant enough to keep me listening, or maybe I’m just too lazy to search out the remote. Either way, it will pass. But it drones right into another stunted electronic exercise, complete with a chopped giggle and sneeze sound that moves from dull to aggravating in under fifty seconds.
The next two songs are faceless and watery, loose-limbed inanities with repetitive organ parts, insipid drumming, and the sort of Sesame Street lyricism that make me mourn for Mr. Hooper all over again (how could you?). When “Home” begins with its Prince Myshkin bass line and picked guitar before ascending to a graceful, lofty chorus that reminds me somehow of the Flaming Lips if they’d grown up as shepherds, the sheer tedium of the preceding tracks has made me irritable. I might enjoy this song otherwise but it’s been so long since “Peppermint Taste,” and if I can forget for a moment my sick remorse, I’d prefer to press replay ten times and drink mango nectar ’til I’m catatonic.