There’s an inherent sense of accomplishment in “doing it yourself,” you know, DIY, whether you’re running, managing, or recording your own band (the “punk rock” sense of the term), or whether you’re knocking down walls with a sledgehammer in your new fixer-upper home. I can’t decide which would be more satisfying, actually – on one hand, there’s nothing like making a record that sounds pretty good on your own; but then, sledgehammer, walls, utter destruction… it’s a hard choice. Blanche Blanche Blanche are talented purveyors of the former discipline at least – you never know, though, they could also be bashing stuff as we speak.
The Brattleboro, Vermont, duo of Sarah Smith and Zach Phillips really really do it themselves, as there’s not a sample to be found on Wink With Both Eyes, a sprawling synth-pop narrative filled with catchy hooks and singalong moments, all without the easy catchiness or dynamic vocal range you might expect. No, in fact, the catchiness of the melodies resides in their inventiveness, and the vocals, despite being mostly delivered in a mid-range tone that doesn’t vary much over the course of the record, hold attention regardless of delivery. Let me unpack that a little bit.
Some wildly entertaining albums succeed precisely because of the limitations placed upon them. BBB, though a duo, work without using samplers, preferring to concoct all their own parts and layer the results on top of each other. Using synthesizers, guitars, and drums (sometimes live, sometimes pre-set), Smith and Phillips work in a palette that can only be described “post punk” in the sense that the K Records bands of the 1980s (Beat Happening in particular) and Young Marble Giants were also “post punk” – they followed the punk movement chronologically and were essentially “punk” to the “punks” by not sounding “punk.” Right? In a nutshell … so BBB works in the same way, getting down and dirty in the basement, recording lo-fi, but failing, fortunately, to exist in that cloyingly twee segment they could so easily be pigeonholed into.
And those, er, “limitations”? Forget about them. These guys are synth virtuosos in miniature. One minute they’re perfecting a theme song intro to a 1980s sitcom (“The River”), the next they’re spiraling off into new arms of galaxies (“Fireworks”). In fact the music tends to exist on the event horizon of a black hole – the tones bend and warp, sometimes well outside of conventional chord structure, lending the record an eerily cosmic vibe. You half expect that crazy robot from Disney’s The Black Hole to pop up here and there and do mean and nasty things.
But this is pop music at its heart, and calls to mind the early Magnetic Fields recordings The Wayward Bus and Distant Plastic Trees especially in tracks like the morose but bouncy “Body Talk” and the delightful “The Fake.” Detours from the norm, if there is even a “norm,” abound, including the tense and robotic title track, the semi-acoustic Euro-bait (and my favorite song on the album) “Mercantile Rugs,” and the downright spooky “Jason’s List,” which reminds me of the incidental music in Ghostbusters when the team arrives to confront Gozer. Congratulations, Blanche Blanche Blanche, I just compared you to Ghostbusters. You’re welcome.
In the end, this is how pop music should sound: precocious, unprocessed, and good for you – healthy, even. Like granola with bits of chocolate in it. Blanche Blanche Blanche aren’t posturing or proliferating an attitude. They just make good music and enjoy doing it. There isn’t any other way to really describe it.
RIYL: Laetitia Sadier, early Magnetic Fields, Maria Minerva
“WINK WITH BOTH EYES”