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Youth Lagoon - Wondrous Bughouse

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Artist: Youth Lagoon

Album: Wondrous Bughouse

Label: Fat Possum

Review date: Mar. 4, 2013

Youthful in appearance, sound, and moniker, Idaho’s indie pop auteur in the making Trevor Powers nevertheless manages to transcend adolescence, even if he has just one foot out of the door. Wisely, Powers distorts his quiet, nasal, meandering self-reflections and buries them beneath an impressive combination of ethereally-echoed toy-keyboard swirls, often building to smatterings of crisp, post hip-hop drum machinery. At their best, his compositions constitute loving, purified microcosms of young (not quite) adulthood. They combine the swagger and sensitivity, and the wonderment and weariness, in ways that ultimately convey hope, rather than the undirected cynicism or optimism that often comes with naiveté. Sonically and emotionally, this is music for people simultaneously moved by Neutral Milk Hotel yet also ready to confess to feeling considerable fondness for Rihanna’s “We Found Love.”

On first listen, Powers’s second full-length, Wondrous Bughouse, sounds like a disappointment. Most conspicuously, the hip, syncopated drum-machine struts of “17,” “Cannons,” and “Afternoon” have been replaced by stiffer thumps that now mark the culminations of epic soundscapes. Even standouts such as “Mute” (which competently apes the beat from “When the Levee Breaks”), and “Raspberry Cane” (which marries Powers’s signature keyboard rolls to perfunctory percussion) are pretty much rock without the roll.

Wondrous Bughouse has its own charms, however. As one comes to appreciate them through repeated listens, it becomes clear that what initially sounds like a letdown is, from another vantage point, an impressive achievement. Powers has managed to construct a sophomore record that is continuous with his first and its many strengths, even as it pushes them in a different direction. Whereas on The Year of Hibernation Powers tentatively gestured at danceable electronica, on Wondrous Bughouse he veers into dense, roaring, carnival-esque psych. The second act may be lumbering where the first was nimble, but Powers’s unflagging sense of melody and his good taste in timbre and arrangement ensure that it is still full of small triumphs. The playful madness of his latest record does justice to its title, just as the earnest, dorm-room indie pop of his first outing evoked the feeling of a collegiate respite.

If his meanings are relatively clear, Powers’s words are still neither clearly discernible nor (I suspect) important for appreciating the thrust of his aesthetic. Memorable, repeated fragments such as “You’ll never die,” (from “Dropla”) and “Everybody cares” (from “Raspberry Cane”) suggest these could just as well be sonic Mad Libs. Project onto the music the specifics you prefer. At the level of generality though, there’s no escaping that it’s the dreams of youth that remain on Powers’s agenda — his press-bait about ruminating on death notwithstanding. I doubt Powers has much to tell us about the latter subject. But as to the former, well, the metaphor and sound of Wondrous Bughouse speak for themselves.

By Benjamin Ewing

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