Houston quartet Drowner seems determined to live up to its moniker on its self-titled debut, for the band drowns its listeners in the sound of ethereal female vocals, spiraling electric guitar atmospherics and a wash of crashing cymbals. There’s so much atmosphere, in fact, that at times it’s difficult to find the songs.
On a number of tracks, like the lengthy excursion “Never Go Away” (which receives a shorter remix at the end of the running order), and the kick-off cut “Point Dume,” Drowner values sound above song; it’s a beautiful sound, but the ensemble prefers to explore the sonic textures of the same or similar notes on its ocean floor rather than getting caught and surfacing on melodic hooks. On “Chimes” (which also receives the remix treatment), they do craft a compelling composition, but the effect is diminished by the cliched lyrics: “Just a little bit longer, baby, just a little bit further into it, be just a little bit stronger, darling, just a little bit, we’ll put an end to it,” Anna Bouchard sings. “The die is cast and now we’re on our own,” she continues in a later passage. The quality of the music makes it an enjoyable listen, but the sentiment could be more creative, and the song sounds too familiar to posit itself as wholly original.
“Wildflowers” runs through fields of beauty but doesn’t get anywhere before being overcome by a wall of guitar atmospherics. A door opens back into the chorus and is shut again by an even louder guitar moment.
Those familiar with the alternativerse of the past 25 years or so may recognize a certain formula in the sounds Drowner synthesizes, and even iTunes correctly pigeonholes the band, for better or worse, as “shoegazer.” The term was coined by the (occasionally) rabid British music press sometime in the early 1990s in reference to some of the early bands of this genre’s habit of staring at their shoes while playing live.
Accuracy notwithstanding (and it’s a rare group that has not decried the use of the label), antecedents of Drowner’s sound include My Bloody Valentine, Lush, Ride and Cocteau Twins, and contemporaries could be Chicago labelmates Panda Riot and Lightfoils (both wonderful in their own right), Milwaukee Kalamashoegazerfest graduates Brief Candles, School of Seven Bells, Blonde Redhead, Asobi Seksu, Soundpool and Autolux. Some among those acts have advocated for the term “dream pop,” and that’s certainly a more descriptive way to describe the sound.
But really, Drowner is most reminiscent of the duo of Toni Halliday and Dean Garcia known as Curve, especially on the remixed tracks. Given that the core of Drowner is a duo as well, vocalist Bouchard and multi-instrumentalist Darren Emanuel (Swimming In, Apples to Earth), the Curve comparison seems especially apt, although the sounds of Drowner are in general a lot less linear, and a lot less rooted in traditional songcraft. “Tiny Ship” is a perfect example of the Drowner modus operandi; more than three minutes of swirling guitar work occur before the drums and bass crash in and propel the cut to a stunning conclusion. Just as Sean Evans and Mike Brewer recently joined in the summer of 2011, the other parts seem to enter the picture late in the compositions. That’s one reason why “Here” and “This” are such welcome changes of pace among the track listing: they integrate all the parts from the outset and successfully balance all the elements to benefit the stellar songcraft.
“Written” could definitely be a winning single as well, with the way the muscular guitar and propulsive bass establish themselves from the outset and Bouchard’s unaffected alto conveys the menace, slicing through the cloud of Robin Guthrie-like electric guitar parts like a finely serrated knife. She sounds like Shirley Manson of Garbage here more than any other place, especially when she references The World Is Not Enough, the James Bond movie for which that supergroup did the theme song.
Drowner is not a perfect record by any means, but it’s always a welcome surprise when something so sonically unanticipated spins such lovely songs in one’s headphones. It’s worth drowning in again and again, especially when following the directions to lather, rinse and repeat.
Drowner — Drowner tracklist:
- “Point Dume”
- “Never Go Away”
- “Tiny Ship”
- “Chime” (Apples to Earth remix)
- “Never Go Away” (Nikki Gunz remix)