or those who may have considered dance music too coarse—too repetitious and formulaic—Matthew Dear was the easy way in. When I couldn’t say if the genre’s tendency to blister-to-freeze and its subtle augmentations were best for homestudy or latenight blitzkrieg—and, shit, was pretty much stuck in the “once you’ve heard one. . .” camp—Dear’s 2003 debut under his own moniker, Leave Luck To Heaven and its shorter companion piece of 2004, Backstroke, offered up his palatable micro in pill form: quick, potent, and assured in their sense of melody and time-shift. And though many still get bogged down in Dear’s voice—and sure, maybe he sounds like he’s huffing aerosol off-beat—having so much of his material pinned by a voice of any sorts probably greased the wheels for those of us more accustomed to music that, you know, literally sings.
But even for an artist who always used his own moniker for his poppiest constructs—recording as Jabberjaw and Audion for his more ‘classical’ techno, so crude and limber in the spine— Dear’s latest, Asa Breed, is his most accessible effort to date. With a total running length of under forty-five minutes and six cuts clocking in under or around three minutes, Dear is all thief-in-the-night: get you chicken-neckin’, check your pockets for consumables for this endless night, and he’s out. Just this grinning pink blotch in your head. Of course, Dear’s long claimed an adoration for African music and the parched reverberations it’s left across pop music—specifically here late-seventies Talking Heads and the Byrne/Eno My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. For the first time in his solo work, he’s really brought that base to his own project. “Elementary Lover” is a puzzling blend of quirky African rhythm guitars and hymnal synth parts; as with so much of the material on Asa, the mix is frothy with points of interest, each inheriting another’s brief breathing spot. Here, he sputters in disorienting tribal prints that recall the likembé of Konono N°1 for its sense of bodiless motion. In fact, “Death to Feelers” likewise clips its chiming intro to in some way emulate the repetitious bliss of the ‘Congotronics’ sound, rounding it out with mesmeric electronic pitch holes and one of Dear’s most organic rhythms. “Good to Be Alive” chops Dear’s voice into beat-box gaps, but likewise gets its rhythm out of an intentionally sloppy rhythm guitar and boy-school beats, like a happier TV On the Radio.
Still, despite Dear’s broader sound palette on Asa Breed, it’s an electro-pop record first and foremost. In a year that has already seen a fair number of remarkable crossover dance anthems—the Field’s entire record, Gui Boratto’s “Beautiful Life,” Kathy Diamond’s “All Woman,” or Kalabrese’s overlooked “Hide”—Dear’s got half a record’s worth. “Neighborhoods” squiggles its way around a tweaked 4/4 beat until Dear turns his relationship’s “awkward silences” and “no solutions to an end” into a resolution: it’s gotta be him. And he’s got enough swoon in the mix to fuel his boast. On lead single “Deserter,” Dear fattens up Axel Willner’s ambient washes with color-bleached dots in the sky that embrace the deep, atmospheric lobotomy of nu-trance, while “Pom Pom” brings that brainless daydream to a head: six-beat background refrains of “Looooooooooooooove” over soft splotches of light and sound. Dear has set himself a mission here: “I’ve got to figure out love.” It’s an endearing moment of inanity on a record that, lyrically, shifts between the vapid and the willfully obtuse quite suddenly. In fact, easily the record’s double-take moment is one of Dear’s more unreadable creations, the glittery snakeskinnin’ of “Don and Sherri.” Dear seems lost in a water-puzzle: who do I want to be to you now that I know you don’t remember me. But it’s those toxic neon tones and the bee-buzzings he whispers into the mix, each given a knee to twitch and a shoulder to shudder if you’re listening closely, and the song’s direct ascent—just over three minutes—that makes it Asa’s most bewitching tune.
Unfortunately, despite its gifted sense of headspacing, Asa Breed clutters its back end with a dated mix of late-nineties organica. Imagine the pseudonatural electronic sounds of the Blur, say, of Blur and 13, or even Beck’s earlier recordings—basically so much of the indie and Britpop tape of the mid-to-late nineties—given new life without reason. For an artist like Dear, who’s been one of dance music’s most wide-eyed popular producers, to revisit those first hesitant steps seems like an awkward and unwanted retrofit. Certainly, it’s amplified by the fact that all of them are placed on the album’s last third. “Midnight Lovers,” for example, pairs an acoustic blues guitar with steamheat pipes and so much tiresome clanging and rear-room whistling, while “Vine to Vine” and “Give Me More” muddy their boots in Beck’s Mellow Gold mind before dirtying up the sullen country whimsy of Johnny Cash.
Of course, to a degree, my extreme distaste for the album’s end seems like slander for the rest of Asa Breed. By and large, Dear’s third album proves a wealth of open-window micro pop fit for summer gusts and unexpected flints of lightning. Despite his late missteps, it’s clear Dear has enlarged his ideas about the more universal end of techno and dance music. He’s issued an album that should play long to lovers of the Junior Boys, Caribou, and the Sally Shapiros of the spectrum, if perhaps leaving those waiting on the new Audion album unmoved. But Audion, that’s like waiting for something to sting you. Asa Breed is a balm for right now.