I’ve been slacking on The Dandy Warhols. For nearly twenty years the four member band has managed to adhere strictly to the standards of themselves and their fans without much concern for American radio play or major label rejections. Good for The Dandy Warhols, bad for people like me who think new music will conveniently come to them. Nevertheless, I’ve found them…eighteen years and eight studio albums later.
I couldn’t have asked for a better starter album than the newest Dandy release, This Machine, an ethereal cruise upon the sound waves of psychedelia, garage rock, and synth pop. Courtney Taylor-Taylor’s simple and honest lyrics are a guiding light through all tonal shades, from the most dreary of tracks to the most uplifting. Much thorough research by yours truly has found that not many people can agree when it comes to attributing a particular Dandy Warhol album to a defining style or sound, as their relentless wanderings among the electro-rock world often produce a little bit of this and that. While This Machine has been no different in inducing writer’s block to me and disagreement among others, it does so with a very grounded, candid voice that warrants appreciation.
If you’ve ever had a break-up that went something like, “It’s not me, it’s you,” then the opening track “Sad Vacation” may be appropriate for reminiscing. Leading with a lone, heavily distorted riff, one might think the group is on the verge of a complete rock session capable of blowing the garage door off. Then, the onset of a one-drop beat strikes to “change the station” and balance the energy. Suddenly you feel as though you’re coasting down a deserted highway, smoking a cigarette and thinking of an experience when “the more you stay the same / the more I feel like I’ll have to change” applied.
Maintaining the storyboard initiated by the good riddance texture of “Sad Vacation,” “The Autumn Carnival” tells us what we might do after actualizing that bittersweet departure. Apparently the journey is a dark one, as “there is no compass, there is no guide / and there is no mask behind which to hide.” Taylor-Taylor’s slow, hushed vocals as well as an almost repeated one-drop beat serve as connective tissue to the first track, but an up-tempo riff along with sporadic tremolo picking give the second track a hauntingly playful attitude of fulfilling one’s darkest desires while on the fringe of society.
Being this dark and this down by only the second song could forecast a pretty intense remainder, but The Dandy Warhols do what they do and change-up the atmosphere with “Enjoy Yourself,” a very welcoming invite after “The Autumn Carnival.” Taylor-Taylor apparently used to be a lot of things that warrant a lust for past labels and statuses, but by the time the up-beat percussion drives us to a resounding “enjoy yourself right now” chorus, we’ve arrived at a carefree celebration that washes over any residue from a sad vacation.
Things really take a turn as the psychedelic instrumental “Alternative Power to the People” pushes us along like a kaleidoscopic tropical storm with gusting synthesizers and rolling drums. This track comes as a perfectly timed transition on a transitional album about transition. In other words, I wasn’t surprised to feel as though I was lost at the mercy of a psychedelic hurricane and somehow being O.K. with it. Perhaps “Alternative Power to the People” was intended to be a trip in every way possible, as “Well They’re Gone” incorporates the sound and lyrical tone of having just survived an emotional whirlwind.
The feeling is one of awakening on a desert island where said whirlwind has crashed and hearing the climactic drums of hostile natives coming your way. What else could you do but to think of the last time you were in someone’s arms? I may be getting carried away with my personal touch here, but by this point in This Machine, an adventure is definitely beginning to unfold. The melody of “Well They’re Gone” takes slow but calculated strides toward a memory through the disillusioned lens of hindsight. The juxtaposed components of ominous drums and whimsical keyboards make for an experience as complex as revisiting a broken relationship, abruptly but inevitably ending with “yeah, well they’re gone.”
One might need a light-hearted jam to chill-out to after all this heavy content. Enter “Rest Your Head,” a temporary break from the anxiety of past failures and future challenges. A Beatles-like guitar riff along with a wordless, mantra-filled chorus is all one needs to forget that psychedelic shipwreck following an intentional sad vacation and ill-advised trip to a particular carnival.
Taylor-Taylor is a pragmatist, though. He knows we can’t really leave our troubles behind for good, which is why we get the very reasonable and effective method “don’t you worry ’til tomorrow / heaven known you surely will.” Our meditative pit-stop seems to crash into “16 Tons,” where realism sets in as we opened our eyes “another day older and deeper in debt.” This Merle Travis cover stays true to the Western blues track as far as mood is concerned, but The Dandy Warhols have – get this – switched up the sound a little bit and taken on an almost big-band swagger with sultry brass, playful vocals, and a stumbling beat.
“I Am Free” begins with a guitar riff evocative of a ’70s rock anthem and brings a sense of actualization to the last segment of This Machine. The straight-to-the-point lyricism is a convincing aspect that authenticates the spiritual cleansing in question. The line “I am free. There’s no one tells me what to be ‘cause I know who I am and I am free” doesn’t warrant hours of close-reading evaluation, and that’s just the kind of discourse one would expect from a journey out of darkness. Accompanied by triumphant horns and modest percussion, this track gradually evolves into a celebration of music and its auras that are constantly flowing within until we “let it out and let it be.”
And then we take another turn. The Dandys couldn’t have possibly let their latest album peter out along one subject could they? On the surface, “Seti Vs. The Wow! Signal” seems like a blithe tune, but a deeper look may suggest polarity and social commentary. This track is pure psychedelia as each respective instrument seems to be exploring its range, the limit being somewhere within the parameters of the Milky Way. Taylor-Taylor’s vocals are the most distinguished and charismatic on this number, offering a melody that is so catchy and simple that it’s as easy as it is inviting to join in by the second chorus.
Back on Earth, we are once again immersed in the dark subject matter with the second-to-last track, “Don’t Shoot She Cried.” This tune doesn’t really need lyrics, as the music provides everything necessary to depict an existential anecdote. With sparse but heavy drums, dreamy guitar picking, and incantation-like vocals that are as entrancing as a choir of sirens, “Don’t Shoot She Cried” tells an instrumental story of resistance and resignation.
“Slide” closes out the album in true psychedelic fashion. Much like This Machine as a whole, “Slide” emits a mood that regards this idea of change and transition with a bit more complexity and depth than can be seen on the surface. There is a slow, somber keyboard progression, contained drums, and smooth vocals. Yet this “Hey I’ve asked you to help me change” opening lyric turns around to look at the tracks that came before it and then let’s it all go. As Taylor-Taylor hangs the word “slide” in the air and the band erupts into psychedelic pandemonium, we are left grounded and looking up at the sky wondering where we’ve been as the Dandy Warhols float on.
To equate This Machine to something we all know (at the risk of being a little cliché), the album reminds me a lot of the spiritual and physical journey imagined in Dark Side of the Moon. That might be an insult to the anti-mainstream Dandy Warhols, but what can I say? The impressively simple lyrics, modest yet creative instrumentals, and crystal clear story about evolving, becoming who you are, and leaving what you aren’t are all components that make me recall the Pink Floyd phenomenon.
There are moments of celebration and imprudence on the album, and there are moments of sincerity and longing. Each song demands a second or tenth listen as the simple course of transition slowly becomes a deep, dark struggle that perhaps ultimately cannot entirely happen when inside the machine of existence circa 2012. There may be a few digressions along the way, and a few impromptu trips into space, but This Machine is undoubtedly woven together by the fabrics of storytelling. Just like many of the great writers and orators, less is more, and Taylor-Taylor’s approach is certainly on track. I was slacking on The Dandy Warhols, but now that I know what I’ve been missing, I’m eager for another close encounter.
For more on info, visit The Dandy Warhol’s website.