The slow-moving New Orleans duo Belong have been around for nearly a decade, but its latest full-length, Common Era, is just its second. It’s the first thing the band has made that could be described as shoegaze with a measure of accuracy, but the epithet feels misapplied for a couple of reasons. While Common Era toys with the kinds of things we usually take to mean “pop song” — a drummer and melodies that don’t take half a song length to unfurl — calling it by such a historical term gets Belong’s evolution backwards. Unlike Ride, or whoever, the duo’s is a sounds-first, songs-last approach. Although the results are easier to grasp than its debut, October Language, it makes a lot of sense on its new label, ambient torch-bearer Kranky, than it did on its former label, Carpark. Turk Dietrich and Michael Jones may apply more structure to the moaning, crumbly sounds they coax from whatever fucked-up boxes they use, but their songs still sound miasmatic, without the possibility of harmonic resolution or a melody you can hum without sounding like you’re barely suppressing pain — much like labelmates Tim Hecker or Stars of the Lid.
But yeah, the latest version of Belong has more to do with pop music than before. There are tracks here with discernable singing and the LP opens on a Jesus and Mary Chain moment (“Come See”). And arguably, the whole thing feels funereal and gray like The Cure’s Faith. This is the kind of stuff that self-proclaimed Anglophiles’ dreams are made on: morose and drizzly but tuneful despite everything, and abounding in opportunities to lecture people about Alternative Rock History. So this is the other reason shoegaze feels like such a flabby and bad moniker, even if thinking it is kind of unavoidable: it’s really Rock-Explainer music. So beware! Dudes in Nirvana T-shirts who blog about The Clash could get into this. The good news is that despite the dicey associations, this is a very good album. I’ve already played it more than any other 2011 album, in part because it keeps expanding and in part because, after a dozen listens, I’m still not sure I’ve gotten what I want out of it.
That being said, October Language or the transitional EP Colorloss Record are easier to love than Common Era because they leave more to the listener. Variations on the same shuffly drumbeat appear on all but three of the nine tracks on Common Era, lending an unfortunate routinized feel. Like Klaus Dinger’s motorik holding pattern, it’s all business. Unlike NEU!, the functionality of the pattern doesn’t keep it from getting tiresome. After a while, the depressive ‘80s dance-club vibe is as much a distraction from otherwise excellent songs as the thin, explanatory keyboard melodies placed in many songs, maybe to help listeners find their way in the clouds of guitar and organ — which are nevertheless toned down from previous releases. Belong is louder, but less dynamic and textured here. Certain tracks that follow this pattern are energetic enough to not feel samey: “Perfect Life” achieves escape velocity. But Belong really succeeds when it doesn’t throw the audience a life preserver. The title track avoids drums altogether — a bass pulse handles the rhythm, which gives the brittle organ lines and an arching vocal melody room to interact freely without establishing the pat relationship more traditional arrangements seem to force.
“Very Careful” closes the album on a high note, also by messing with the album’s production style. The song employs a clunky drum machine mixed low, again leaving space for bit-crushed, streched-out sounds to wend around each other. I admire Belong for cutting their abstract tendencies with recognizable forms on Common Era, especially when the artists they most sound like have stuck with refining one sound for years — perhaps out of focus but just as likely fear of being judged by different standards. This is no Ravedeath, 1972, meaning that Belong’s latest is not only a considerable stylistic adjustment but also difficult to praise for the same reasons as the band’s earlier work. The presence of familiar things makes their music go down easier this time around, but it remains a challenge, even after many listens, to feel like you understand what you’re supposed to feel. After a decade, Belong may or may not have more music in them, but I wouldn’t be surprised if opacity was the point all along.