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Eric Copeland - Joke in the Hole

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Artist: Eric Copeland

Album: Joke in the Hole

Label: DFA

Review date: Aug. 29, 2013

There was a time when Black Dice was the most exciting band on the planet. The “pop” music James Murphy thought he signed them up for evolved from confrontational Rhode Island hardcore to bristling Boredoms-aping brilliance to the full-on deconstruction of pop music on 2007’s Load Blown. Since, then, however, the trio has leveled off by peddling workmanlike pop abstractions in the form of Repo and Mr. Impossible. Maybe it’s strange that they’re still considered such an integral part of the indie landscape (a DFA catalog number when it mattered, 112XX ZIP code, high-profile tours, key namedrops) when their music has stalled out, but it’s stranger still to think of Eric Copeland’s work as bearing any significant differences to the Black Dice aesthetic or trajectory.

The hardest part of looking at and listening to Joke in the Hole remains trying to separate it from Copeland’s work in that band. His own history tells of Strange Days and Limbo, two in a string of releases that were less albums than rough-hewn scrapheaps of ideas, exercises in the limits of his equipment, or the chance to work out his own fractured musical ideas. But those always felt inextricably linked to what Black Dice was (or was not) doing – even without knowing who made it, a song like “Double Reverse Psychology” or “Osni” sounded deeply indebted to Broken Ear Record in its vaguely psychedelic queasiness. Just because Eric Copeland was releasing music didn’t mean Black Dice’s specter wasn’t looming large.

So it continues. Joke in the Hole goes one step further in unifying the solo with the collaborative by abandoning his monochromatic artwork for a more colorful (in more than one way) approach that recalls his brother Bjorn’s work with the ‘Dice; it also reunites him with DFA at a point in the timeline where familiarity is the trump card. This feels natural, but the music isn’t as startling as it was when they were last side by side in 2005 – there are new aspects to consider, yes, but the terrain is familiar. You recognize all the sonic side-glances.

Even so, this may be Copeland’s strongest effort front to back. Whereas albums like Hermaphrodite or Alien in a Garbage Dump take advantage of that sort of unpredictable punk ethos in abrupt endings or decidedly low fidelity or half-finished flimsiness, Joke in a Hole is about as smooth sailing as you’re likely to find from Copeland’s neck of the woods. “Rokzi” throws you in with a metallic clang on the front end, but the beat at the song’s heart is a low-key loop that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Shed record. Of course, it gets noisier and there are heavily manipulated vocals and sampling and even what sounds like live drums because that’s Copeland’s M.O.; restraint has never suited him. It’s an aural melting pot with a climax and a grooving minute and a half to finish it out.

That groove, as it turns out, is the key to this record. More than any other of his or his band’s releases, Joke in the Hole indulges in happy hardcore tropes and mid-tempo 4/4 rhythms. Listen beyond the busy asides of “Babes in the Woods” or the xylophone vibe on “Cheap Treat” and you’ll hear the rave influence in the percussion. “Tinkerbell” is a screwed videogame soundtrack. “New Leather Boogie” finishes the album with a more direct homage to the genre in a vocal loop of “hip-hop.” “Kash Donation” is a dubby exercise in decay. Even “Shoo Rah” shuffles along with a relatively conventional beat you can dance to (though you’ll feel too sick to try with one too many in you).

Joke in the Hole is an enjoyable record because there are so many things to hear in a literal sense – new sounds are popping out from the mix even after several listens through with proper headphones. But more so than ever before, Eric Copeland has found a way to fuse what Black Dice does with what he has been doing on his own since he struck out on his own in 2008. For those who are familiar with either catalog, this is a pleasing but predictable development.

For those who aren’t, the excitement of hearing Joke in the Hole coming from a fashionable EDM or modern hip-hop background should be as exciting as hearing Beaches and Canyons coming from a “Semen of the Sun” background – somewhere, someone is hearing the lines drawn and opening themselves to another world. The joke in the hole is how far they follow that proverbial rabbit. With any luck, they’ll write for Dusted someday.

By Patrick Masterson

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