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Caroline - Verdugo Hills

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Artist: Caroline

Album: Verdugo Hills

Label: Temporary Residence

Review date: Feb. 11, 2011

The younger sister of Japanese pop star Olivia Lufkin, Caroline is a member of the “post-rock” outfit Mice Parade and a Live Journal-scale diva in her own right. Almost five years after her 2006 debut, Murmurs, Caroline has returned with another ephemeral collection of child-like vocals set to minimalist electronic soundscapes. IDM flourishes trimmed to the bare essentials twinkle and flutter over sparse percussive jitters and slow and moody synth lines, like one silver lining after another for a cloud that waxes and wanes. Caroline’s precious wisp of a voice is gently echoed, contorted and harmonized. Occasionally, the standby tricks even give way to a memorable refrain, countermelody, or percussive track.

“Balloon.” “Swimmer.” “Sleep.” “Seesaw.” “Waltz.” “Lullaby.” “Snow.” “Gone.” In keeping with the stripped-down, gentler-than-thou aesthetic that pervades the Caroline project, all but two of the tracks on Verdugo Hills have delicate one-word names. The labeling technique also reflects and reinforces the sense that the tracks here are less songs and more impressionistic moments that drift into one another in a haze more resonant than any of its constituents. Each modernist mood-moment — inhuman in its synthesized totality but sparkling and reverberating its way to a montage cue — stands ready for appropriation as manipulative music for independent film.

Pretty though they may be, the tracks on Verdugo Hills oscillate between indistinguishable and undistinguished. Caroline saves the record’s two finest, most distinctive moments for the dénouement. “Snow,” the penultimate track, sounds almost like a proper song — its Missy Elliot-meets-Sigur Ros syncopation scheme and horn-propelled ersatz chorus make it a worthy candidate for background noise at a campus house party. “Gone,” the closer, begins like a Joanna Newsom ditty but builds to a click-clack rhythm, studio-sheen hook, and faint countermelody that together sound like the outcome of Max Martin vying for indie cred.

Verdugo Hills is not heavy on ideas. It is, however, the sort of record that foregrounds the issue of music’s reception. Here, I’m thinking only indirectly of the cultural logic that mediates the meanings we accord to certain combinations of sounds. I’m focusing instead on how a single set of ears hears those sounds at the relatively mechanical level of auditory sensation (and how this affects loftier questions of meaning). To these ears, Verdugo Hills exists to set a mood. Context, not text, is its raison d’être. Translated to a more concrete level, such abstract formulations amount to something like this: listening to the album doesn’t distract me much from my reading and other work — which is good, because most of its fey melancholy isn’t in the running for my full attention.

By Benjamin Ewing

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