Sunday, January 20, 2013

Dog Bite Delivers A Thing Of Genuine Beauty: A Review Of Velvet Changes

I get a lot of free music these days, and I tend to gush about stuff that I like even a little bit, but let me say without a trace of exaggeration that Velvet Changes is the best full-length record I've heard in about a year.

I've been sitting on this thing for a few months now but, since the February 5 release date of Dog Bite's album on Carpark Records is looming in the near-future, it's about time I wrapped my words around this beautiful record.

By now you know the backstory: Phil Jones was playing keyboards with Washed Out and then he decided to record his own record, partially inspired by the 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock, if you believe the press pieces.

Let's start with "Forever, Until" shall we?

The lead single and opening cut on Velvet Changes immediately recalls 4AD band Swallow -- (for reference here) -- but where that 4AD band and dozens of their type bought effects pedals before learning a tune, Dog Bite is more concerned with melody. The vocals -- a bit buried -- convey the emotions but the strong melody line is what sets this apart from just about every other moody shoegazer out there.

Yeah, fans of that stuff won't be disappointed with the Dog Bite album but these tunes are stronger than any act gravitating towards the class of 1991.

"Supersoaker" uses some crooning and a combination of scratchy guitar and Robin Guthrie-style effects to create another strummed mini-masterpiece. If Phil Jones' vocals are not always direct, and if you can't always make out the words, it's no matter; Like Elizabeth Fraser before him, he's able to convey the emotions of the tracks without being so obvious in his delivery.

"No Sharing" starts with a sprightly Durutti Column-like guitar-figure. It moves at a faster clip but Jones' vocals sound like a man overwhelmed by the beauty of the world.

As others have mentioned, there's a hint of A.R. Kane here but where those London guys had a few feet on the dance-floor, Jones seems more interested in creating personal music that looks inward even while it opens up in instrumental flourishes around his sometimes-subdued vocals.

Did I say Dog Bite wasn't interested in dance-music? But there's "Prettiest Pills"...

Well, "Prettiest Pills" isn't really dance music but it does have a strong beat -- a drum machine? -- that anchors the track as the fuzzy bass and layered guitars wash over the tune. Jones' multitracked vocals are used excellently here -- it sounds like there were 10 guys in the studio but I'm guessing that it was just him.

"You're Not That Great" channels some Joy Division (Peter Hook-style bass-line) but the mood is lovely and not grim. Jones' vocals here follow the lyrical guitar line.

"Holiday Man" uses a rockier strum and a few sharp guitar notes to change up the mood while "Native America" uses real drums (I think) to anchor a tune that's got less effects on it than others on this record, though Phil Jones' vocals are multitracked here.

"Paper Lungs" looks to Joy Division and that sort of thing more than 4AD bands. It's a slow-burn of a number, the near-drone and simple guitar-work creating something uneasy but there's release in the strong chorus.

Which brings us to "Stay Sedated", my favorite track on the album. Languid vocals -- "salty eyes and salty dreams" -- and a Robin Guthrie-meets-Fripp guitar-riff and soft drum patterns create the highlight of the record for me. Sure, the other tracks have some of those same elements but there's something magical about the way the song opens up at the midway mark. What's sort of a moody downer suddenly turns into a briefly soaring down-tempo anthem.

Instrumental "The Woods and the Fire" takes that Cocteau Twins vibe and runs with it. Throw in a hint of My Bloody Valentine and you can hear what's in Phil Jones' record collection on this one. Still, like most of the tunes on Velvet Changes, it's less a product of Phil Jones' influences and more a unique spin on them. Dog Bite isn't aiming to be the American version of that 4AD stuff. No, he's simply taking those pieces and using them in a new way. Not quite new folk or lo-fi or emo, the tunes on Velvet Changes point the way for something affecting and new in American rock.

Album closer "My Mary" offers one of Phil Jones' best vocal bits on the record. Behind some "The Spanglemaker"-styled guitar riffs, Jones croons "I need you..." and the tune unfurls around him as his voice echoes out into the night. It's a mix of about half-a-dozen different elements but the effect is one of emotional directness. By being a bit obscure, Jones manages here to produce genuinely deep music.

I've raved about this record to friends and now I'm raving about it to my few readers. Get this album when it's released on February 5 on Carpark Records.

Like The Blue Nile and Vini Reilly's Durutti Column, Phil Jones as Dog Bite manages to produce music that resonates in some genuinely unique ways with a listener. And, like those acts, he blurs a few genres in the process.

Strip away the production and you've got a lot of strong tunes. Add in the instrumental bits and subtle studio wizardry here, and you've got one of the best sounding records in ages.

I think the fact that I've wasted so many words trying to describe this record, and done such a shitty job too, ought to tell you that this music is special and hard to define in easy prose.

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