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Artist: D+

Album: Deception Pass

Label: Knw-Yr-Own

Review date: Sep. 2, 2003

Outsider Music

The Knw-Yr-Own label documents the Anacortes, Washington punk music scene in a way that K used to document the post-Beat Happening music of Olympia. Anacortes is about seventy-five miles north of Seattle, on the tip of Fidalgo Island in the northern end of Puget Sound. To anyone who has never been there (and, quite possibly, to more than a few people who live in this 14,500-population town), Anacortes is the sticks. Be that as it may, the town recently hosted the second What the Heck? music festival, which featured live performances by such Northwest standard bearers as Calvin Johnson, Mirah, Bobby Birdman, and Mount Eerie (formerly, or maybe still, The Microphones), among over 30 other performers. Things are happenin’ here in Anacortes, at least once a year.

D+ is shaping up to be the flagship act of Knw-Yr-Own, if for no other reason than D+ guitarist Bret Lunsford is the label-head, and the band looks great on paper. Comprised of Lunsford (who was once one-third of Beat Happening), the ambitious Phil Elvrum (better known as The Microphones) and Karl Blau (who has released two solo LPs on Knw-Yr-Own and is also part of Captain Fathom), there seems to be a wealth of talent at play in the ranks of this band. The band is quite capable of producing captivating, fun music, as evidenced by the notable Dandelion Seeds, from 1998. That album was more or less a Lunsford solo effort, and it sounded a lot like Beat Happening. The CD release of that album featured two bonus tracks each by Blau and Elvrum, whose creative input – especially that of the former – has become slightly more prominent in the band’s current sound.

It’s immediately apparent that the band spent a bit more time putting together Deception Pass than they spent on last year’s Mistake, which sounded like a very unmotivated effort. While the songs here don’t exactly approach structural sophistication, there is a direction to this material – evident in the musicians’ playing, and they’re ability to play together – that was missing from the band’s last album. The opening track “Skin Me” is an assured, country-inspired, half-tempo groove that is quite promising and, ultimately, the best track on the album.

As with each D+ recording thus far, the scope of Elvrum’s songwriting (to wit: complexity) is largely missing from Deception Pass, which is a pretty straightforward amateur folk-rock affair. Blau’s influence is more apparent; he has a tendency to continue songs well past their welcome. Critics have occasionally misrepresented (but only slightly) Captain Fathom as a kind of lo-fi jam band, and there may be something to such a characterization at play on this record. Forgetting about 25-minute finale for the moment, the title track starts and stops a few times, frustratingly oblivious to the fact that there is a really good song in there, subject merely to a little editing. It keeps on chugging through a simple, droning verse/chorus exchange, leaving the listener with the unfortunate and entirely-too-early premonition that this album is going to be a tedious affair.

Half of the other songs on the album (most notably “Blame-A-Holic,” with its “It’s not me-me-me-me-me / It’s all you-you-you-you-you” chorus) never really get out of the gate. The thankfully brief “I Don’t Owe You Anything” throws an a cappella vocal melody at the listener, leaving one to wonder when the music is going to show up. (It may indicate a bit of bias on the part of this reviewer, but a cappella vocalization just sounds a lot better when an appealing voice is singing.) At about this point, Lunsford’s vocal shortcomings become unnervingly apparent, absent the charming naiveté of Calvin Johnson.

Of course, just when the album seems unlistenable, what was irritating becomes utterly irresistible. While utilizing the same tools – frank simplicity, tunelessness, monotony – D+ achieve a sincerity that was missing earlier on Deception Pass. The two-pronged, mid-album mini attack of “Sound” and “No Charge” seem to save this record just when it’s in danger of going under. The former is immediately engaging, if only because it’s hard to tell whether or not the song utilizes a saw (not in the normal way that you would hear a saw being bent, but in the actual act of sawing wood) to accompany a very raw, but sweet vocal harmonization. The latter also utilizes another weak and cuddly harmony alongside a lone and uncharacteristically rocking guitar, making for what comes quite close to a really catchy, if also a bit ugly, song.

And eventually there’s the afore-mentioned 25-minute closer, “We Could Do Anything.” If any song on this album bears the mark of Phil Elvrum’s composition, it’s this one. Presented in movements, you’ll likely be prepared for the track’s mix of good and bad, engaging and boring. One segment incorporates a full, rich electronic sound that stands completely distinct from, and compositionally superior to, anything else on the album. “We Could Do Anything” stands as a microcosm, encapsulating the whole up-and-down experience of Deception Pass.

The listener may wonder why anyone with any sense – which these musicians have all proven to possess – would record such un-sensible music. After listening to Deception Pass several times, the merely frustrating qualities of the record give way to what seems like confrontation on the part of D+. We’re pretty used to hearing this kind of stuff referred to as folk, by which we assume the referent is folk music, but what’s often left out of the equation is folk art (i.e., Outsider Art). While American folk music is most often based in the same blues/hillbilly/roots tradition as rock, there’s no telling what’s behind a lot of folk art. Often misunderstood as incompetent, it’s been dubbed Outsider Art – it exists outside of the boundaries of criteria used to criticize art. Often times, this art originates in towns the size of Anacortes, oblivious to rules of the standard game, which are in large part determined by critics. Therefore, it’s really hard to criticize folk art, as it doesn’t follow the same rules used to criticize the majority of music we listen to. It creates its own unique, remote world and demands to be considered within that world.

As Outsider Music, Deception Pass challenges our perception of quality, in regards to both music and the artists who make it. Surely, this is precisely what punk rock was trying to say, but we’re now so used to punk as a subgenre of rock that we’re desensitized to music made by folks who are literally outside of that world. There’s really no other way to approach criticizing this stuff. While these musicians are completely competent at what they do, what they do is completely amateur with absolutely no concern for quality of craft. It’s like building a structure with broken material, then asked to appreciate the magic by which the structure is held together. This magic is often compelling, and occasionally mundane and uninspiring, but ultimately useful in expanding our understanding of the possibilities of craft and the very rights of unqualified individuals to create.

By Cory O'Malley

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