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Blank Dogs - Land and Fixed

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Artist: Blank Dogs

Album: Land and Fixed

Label: Captured Tracks

Review date: Dec. 1, 2010

I’m a little bit surprised that, at the end of 2010, we’re still talking about Blank Dogs. A relentless stream of releases in the past two years along with the entire Captured Tracks catalogue seems like it should have Mike Sniper at the edge of exhaustion. And if not Sniper himself, then at least the sound he’s pioneered and had co-opted by every kid with long ratty hair, a nicotine-skinny physique and a drum machine.

The fact that Sniper has never fit into the stereotype that has risen around the scene he helped create is probably the root of Blank Dogs’ longevity. As synth-heavy, beat-programmed bands went through their lo-fi, goth, and now predominantly cold wave phases, Blank Dogs has stayed above the scramble for relevancy. Rather than follow, Sniper has created his own currents along the way.

Chalk it up to experience, encyclopedic music knowledge or a focus on songwriting. But even more than that, Land and Fixed owes as much to planned obsolescence. Blank Dogs has a large repertoire, but with each release, the only ones that really seem to matter are what have just come out. I can still name you a few favorites: “Death Jumpers” on Captured Tracks-Vol. 1, “RCD Song” on On Two Sides, “Before the Hours” on The Fields, and “Tin Birds” on Under and Under. But why worry about those when there’s a whole new batch of songs like “Through the Wall” and “Treelines”?

Embracing the transient properties of pop music takes guts. It also elevates the entire Blank Dogs discography as commentary on temporality. Theoretically, it’s similar to LCD Soundsystem’s commitment to not using samples at live shows. A human being makes every sound. This defines the fleeting nature of a concert; once the band stops playing, the songs are gone. Blank Dogs, however, draws attention to the fleeting nature of the sound themselves. Wind them up and these could go forever, unrelentingly, like clockwork. When they stop, however, that’s it. There’s no residue that lingers once they pass.

This deconstruction of ephemerality works best when songs are at their most regular, highly structured and nearly clinical. It also puts some distance between Blank Dogs and easily identifiable predecessors. The Cure, for example. They had feeling, you know? Or at the very least had feelings. Blank Dogs, not so much. “Goes By” starts with a rising, rhythmic bass line that screams “get hyped.” But then the song never settles into a groove. The drum machine’s basic arithmetic invades every other aspect of the song. A precise calculus prevents even the slightest deviation. You are presented with a formula for exactly how to “feel” it, and if you step out of line, it just feels awkward. The real test of this is in a live setting; as you watch people try to dance, you realize there’s no chance for them to cut loose. It’s a very regular set of steps, maybe the closest thing to punk rock line dancing that’s ever existed.

Something odd happens when these songs are forced into a box, though. Call it Sniper’s theorem: the more restricted, the larger the echo chamber, and the more intense and wild they become. And for the most part, it works. Thinking about it a little more abstractly, this isn’t that surprising. An argument could easily be made that what Sniper does is little more than sampling. He is able to lift riffs, hooks, even entire styles from nearly any synth-driven ‘80s band and loop together those ideas into a primordial, rhythmically reliable song with direct access to your cerebellum. I’ve come to think of it as a Shellac-ing, for lack of a better term.

Inversely, freedom from restriction is a hazard on Land and Fixed. Even brief detours can undermine an entire song. “Longlights” has one of the strongest openings on this album, but the chorus punches a hole right in the roof of the whole song. Sniper’s mournfully expressive drone is full of drama and natural movement that is both cloying and histrionic. In the hands of associates like Wild Nothing or Zola Jesus, this works. But here, it’s just discordant. Not just from a musical vantage, either, but programmatically. Blank Dogs’ longstanding self-effacement has always excelled at emotional inscrutability. But once there’s any kind of emotional weight, the whole endeavor can collapse in on itself. The song becomes ugly the more light you shine on it.

The maneuvering that Blank Dogs can make while adhering to this prescriptive formula is what impresses me the most. It’s also the reason that so many songs bear repeating. Whether it’s the unexpected but un-uncharacteristic guitar solo on “Northern Lights” or the fractal murk on “Through the Wall,” Sniper knows how to bend his own rules. And then there’s “Blurred Tonight,” the clearest, tamest, and most sentimental song on the whole record. An anomaly, in other words, but one unqualified in its beauty.

Once the next Blank Dogs record rolls around, I’m sure I’ll move on to the next one, no matter how close in sound they might be. Sniper is nothing if not reliable, and consistent. But what I will return to, even after the memory of this particular album becomes blurred, is “Blurred Tonight” and the other songs that have deviated, even in the slightest, from the program.

By Evan Hanlon

Other Reviews of Blank Dogs

The Fields

Under and Under

Read More

View all articles by Evan Hanlon

Find out more about Captured Tracks

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