Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Album Review: Diiv - "Is The Is Are"

Diiv's follow-up to their debut album, Oshin, is confusingly titled Is The Is Are and will be released next week, but it's been streaming at various sites so we can finally give it a listen and begin to unwrap the 17 tracks that unfold over its 65-minute running time.

By way of background, it's been, to say the least, an interesting three years for the band since the 2012 release of Oshin.  In 2013, guitarist Andrew Bailey entered rehab for alcoholism.  Then frontman Zachary Cole Smith (who goes by "Cole"), the former touring guitarist of Soft Black, Darwin Deez, and Beach Fossils, was arrested for possession of heroin and ecstasy along with his girlfriend, the pop singer Sky Ferreira.  Drummer Colby Hewitt quit the band in 2015, reportedly due to his own drug issues.  It was hard to tell if the band had another album left in them.  

Is The Is Are is intended to be an answer to Cole's critics, and he may have largely succeeded.  NME declared "these are some of the most powerful, personal and persuasive rock songs you’ll hear this year."

The album continues the shoegazey dream-pop of Oshin but takes it in some new directions.  The opener Out Of Mind kicks off with a crackling amp and the song shares an upbeat sensibility with the second track, the krautrock-y Under The Sun, which starts out with a chirping guitar and an urgent post-punk bassline, and gradually adds on layers that updates Oshin’s hazy glow with a new urgency. All the elements of a typical Diiv song can be heard, but they sound more layered, technical, and subliminally hazy than ever before.  Instead of soaring, stand-alone guitar hooks like on Oshin, the jangly guitars languish in a calm atmospheric post-punk fog. 

The blearily pretty Bent (Roi’s Song) starts off sounding like an Unknown Mortal Orchestra song until it dissolves into murky feedback and Cole singing about an addicted friend (“I lost you when you said one hit couldn’t hurt a bit”).  It is one of three songs on the album with people's names parenthetically attached to them.  Cole stated that these songs aren't about those people, "it just means that in my head, there’s something about that person that I just can’t disconnect from the song."  Bent (Roi’s Song), he explains "used to make me feel sad, lonely, and terrified… but circumstances have changed, and now the song makes me smile… laugh even. The primary struggle of this song now exists (hopefully forever) in the past."  The song, he explains, is about a lot of people, including Cole himself, and his "struggles along the path to clarity, sanity, and sobriety."

The song is also a reimagination and extension of the sounds the band explored on Oshin. "It removes the vocal reverb that has graced all our previous output," Cole said, "it places lyrical content at the forefront, and it starts to hint at the more diverse sonic palette that defines Is The Is Are.” 

The fourth track, the lovely, fluttering Dopamine, starts off almost sounding almost like a Real Estate song but with an early-’90s reverb glow to it, and manages to be big and bright and friendly as it meanders around exploring alternate terrain.

Cole has stated that the album was influenced by Krautrock bands like Can and Neu! as well as by Sonic Youth, and the Sonic Youth influence can be heard most distinctly on Blue Boredom (Sky's Song), the second "name" song on the album, which features Sky Ferreria on Kim Gordon-style spoken word vocals. 

Cole explains that the title song for Is The Is Are was inspired by his experience recreating Neu!’s Hallogallo for a Noisey documentary on Krautrock. 
I was heavily inspired by their process behind the song. All the lead guitars on the track came from just me playing melodies over the song, as I would with any other song, but then we took the whole guitar track and flipped it backwards. Then, we did the same thing again! I recently read an interview with Michael Rother of Neu! in Tape Op magazine while waiting in line at a customs check in Berlin, months and months after the album was already submitted, and he talked about the recording process of Hallogallo and he said they basically did the same thing, playing melodies over the track and then flipping them backwards, but he said that they played their parts over an extended 30-minute version of the song and that their producer Connie Plank took their guitar parts and chopped them up to include his favorite bits, and I remember thinking, "Aw man, I wish I had thought of doing that."  
The lyrics for the song are about finding oneself in vastly different, often paradoxical headspaces at various stages throughout addiction and recovery. "One paradox is that while you’re out on the street killing yourself, you can be feeling real good," Cole says, "while the process of ‘getting better’ is an extremely long and painful experience, though one that can also be extremely life-affirming."

On Mire (Grant’s Song), which first premiered on Mexico City’s Ibero 90.9 FM, Cole's lead guitar evokes hope, cutting through the song's opening wail like sunlight between the clouds. After  Blue Boredom (Sky's Song), it is the second of two homages on the album to Sonic Youth.

The album ends with Waste Of Breath, its final note lingering to leave the impression Is The Is Are could be Diiv’s definitive statement.  Sure, over 17 tracks, there's some filler, like the 18-second (fuck) and the 1:45 (Napa), but overall, the album is bright and shiny and dreamy.  Cole has called the album "diverse," stating "it is a happy record, a sad record, a happysad, sadhappy, mad, glad, quiet, mad, dark, glad, poppy, fast, slow, heavy, fast, peaceful, angry, chaotic, beautiful, lost/found, ugly, dry, wet, fuck, fast, dead, heartbroken, in love, loud, quiet, loud, loudquiet, quietloud, happy, mad, quiet, fuck, and loud record." 

So there you have it.

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