The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


The Distractions
Dark Green Sea Michael Dix , February 14th, 2011 06:46

The rise in popularity of cassette-only releases over the last couple of years has proved to be something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, tapes are always going to hold a special place in the hearts of any thirty-something music lover who spent hours making their own John Peel show compilations, or dubbing love songs for that special classmate; on the other hand, the format is hardly practical these days, with limited production runs and tape decks themselves so scarce that even if you managed to get hold of a copy, chances are you wouldn’t be able to play it.

More importantly, while it may be cool to be obscure, a lot of these bands really do deserve the kind of attention a proper release could afford. Case in point: the fantastic debut album by Chicago’s Distractions, a pop noir masterpiece acknowledging Arthur Russell, Bill Callahan and Scott Walker, one hundred copies of which were released on cassette last year. With such a limited release – and virtually no PR or internet presence – one of 2010’s best albums went entirely unnoticed, making its re-mastered release on the Infinite Best label the most welcome – if overdue – announcement of the new year.

Dark Green Sea is a genuinely unique concoction, drawing mainly from Spector-esque wall of sound pop but taking in British Invasion R&B, 70s dub sonics, 80s post-punk atmospherics, 90s guitar squall and even a touch of 00s electronic noise. It’s like a musical time capsule signal beamed back from a 50s B-movie vision of the future. Front-man Tom Owens is a scarily ambitious songwriter, approaching these compositions with the perfectionist precision of a master like Bacharach or Brian Wilson, adding and taking away instruments and dropping key changes and rhythmic shifts to create several movements within each song. Opener 'All Night', for instance, comes crashing in with all guns blazing, guitars and organ jostling for space with propulsive drums, before halving the tempo for a horn-augmented, doo-wop flavoured climax, whereas 'My Gold' goes through so many sections that it’s difficult to tell when it segues into 'Please Slow Down'. And while the slightly lo-fi remix/ mastering job from Twin Sister’s Udbhav Gupta betrays the band’s DIY origins, songs like the brassy 'We Were Better Off In The Rain' are as catchy and instantly memorable as a classic Stax slow-burner.

If there are any contemporary comparisons to be made, Distractions share some common ground with the Walkmen, not only in the sense that they both sound like they’ve stumbled onto the stage of some sleazy cocktail lounge at 4am, but also in the nods to dusty soul and easy listening. With its complex arrangements and old-fashioned stylings, the album – especially its middle section - flows like a classic “song cycle” record. Only the final stretch serves as a reminder that this album could only be Class Of 2011 material; 'Not Going To Go Away' jerks along on a stuttering beat that could easily be a Liars rhythm track, before dissolving into the closing 'Heartbeats', an ambient wash of sighing moans, harmonics, electronic scatter-beats and echo-chamber FX not too far removed from the swampy jams of Sun Araw and the Not Not Fun crew. Dark Green Sea announces Owens as a potentially major player on the scene, with an immense song-writing talent and the sense to surround himself with a set of extremely capable band-mates. Musical history is rife with lost classics and gifted artists forced to its outskirts by poor promotion and matters beyond their control; let’s just hope that this re-issue gains the album the attention it truly deserves.