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Washed Out
Within Without John Calvert , July 22nd, 2011 07:21

As the chillwaver least inclined to confection, on his introductory EP - complete with genre-iconic artwork - Ernest Greene's one dimensional wares trod a precarious line between vacuity-as-art and just plain vacuity, especially when compared to the more eclectic likes of, say, the versatile Memory Tapes, the Dilla-hazey Tory Y Moi, or the potently psychedelic Neon Indian. So come the second wave of under-the-pier laptop candy, if anyone's sound would prove too flimsy to withstand the ravages of development it would be that of the artist known as Washed Out, who on his debut LP has severely tested our suspension of disbelief, enough so that even its most vocal champions might be hard-pressed to deny that chillwave, if we define it as the genre's most recognizable protagonist interprets it here, is beginning to look like one big, picturesque gimmick.

The Georgian's debut EP was positively barren next to his most obvious antecedent – Swedes Air France, whose unerringly neural Balearic defined latter-day chillwave in sharp (well sharp-ish) relief with the justifiably maligned pseudo-genre disaster known as 'chillout'. At the tail-end of a spate of somewhat delayed debuts, constituting chapter two for the boys of summer, Greene's own evolution centres around sharpening the outlines of his bedroom imaginations, transforming his style from dreamy nostalgia trips to your garden variety tropical ambient, of the gr-ooovy kind. So on the appropriately titled Within Without he serves to undo much of Air France's visionary work in asserting a conceptual sovereignty, winding back the years to unending, turn-of-the-century chillout compilations which more or less represented the depressing adulteration and symbolic demise of rave's young dream.

Now with the time-creased fug reduced to a mere fizzle, on Within Without Greene's once sublime creation sounds sterile and fatally shallow; ten breathtakingly neutral tracks that push the needle on the chillwaver's sound from limpid to insipid and from blissfully oblivious to bland; the boyish glee now artificial-feeling like a spike of prozak-enhanced serotonin. The overall process has been one of dilution. Just maybe he has exposed chillwave as the obscurantist fluff its detractors always claimed – an elaborate experiment into the degree in which presentation dictates the significance we place on a sound. Ultimately, what's most clear by the end of Within Without is that the music of Washed Out no longer means anything.

In fact, purged of the EP's personality-lending 10cc references, so astonishingly blank is Within Without it engenders next to nothing in the listener by way of memory recall (or imagery, or sensory response) - so much so that by the end you might struggle to remember your middle name, or whether actually had one in the first place, or the right way to go about clapping. Alienating, unengaging, it's sort of like musical nitrous oxide – gaseous and numbing, effecting a shrill high, and followed up by a headache after prolonged exposure. Granted this is chillwave not Joey Beltram, but what Greene's previous output had was an intensity of feeling, a distinctive style, and a seductive atmospheric density that is lacking here - together what you might call aesthetic.

Quietly ushered in on rave-referencing but disembodied synths, the album's most dynamic track - opener 'Eyes Be Closed' - is transported on a naff Crusty-esque beat and bends and flexes almost like an indie anthem, culminating in a Phil Collins-esque doo-dom doo-dom doo-dom drum part. It's about as vibrant as Within Without gets, after which the ensuing eights tracks, many of which sound unshakeably like diaphanous variations on The Beloved's 'Sweet Harmony', are intent on following the path of very least resistance, as though the lower back sweat of a Balearic brickie draining into an indecently smooth butt-crack. 'Amor Fati', with its mock-'urban' rhythm and Transglobal Underground-vibe recalls the worst advances of post-rave pop, unwelcome memories of Saint Etienne and Seal flooding back in alabaster gushes of warm ejaculate. All it's missing is some Spanish guitar and a Heather Small cameo. Similarly 'You and I', with its panpipe synths and zenist chants is such a tasteful bit of ethno-techno yack it begs to be skipped, for fear you'll grow a ponytail and a web designer's goatee. With almost no thought given to expressive, stimulating textures, or variation in general (and live drums are another limiting facto) the background effects either comprise of vortical twinkle or reedy synth pads. Same-y is the word for it.

Elsewhere, 'Echoes' traipses much the same territory, with Greene at his most generic. Abstract in an entirely negative sense, a utilitarian drum part is punctuated by trite flourishes and plagued eternally by a pendulous, almost monomaniacal two-note synth. Another wholly interchangeable track, 'Far Away' features a violin part whittled down to within an inch of its life in case any kind of richness might creep in the back door. Meandering along with a depressing inevitably, it's almost like the chronicles of a bohemian's journey from freewheeling nonchalance to purposelessness, followed by dispassion and finally boredom.

Occasionally there are moments of soulful connection sprinkled amidst the drift, where the Georgian seems quiet inspired. Like on 'Soft' - a sonic chemtrail and a uniquely chillwave experience which with its bassline momentum resembles an ocean drive where everything moves but the great blue Pacific. Its the one incident where, draped over the travelling rhythms, the ethereal background effects have the desired effect. Closing track 'A Dedication' also gets closer to the understated beauty Greene is striving for, making effective use of caroming synths and a forlorn piano bit, ending in a nice fade out. The chillwavers give good fade out.

If you can imagine it, Within Without is kind of like the anti-dub: skin-deep, brittle, one dimensional and impervious like hard plastic; whereas before, Life is Leisure's soundscapes however peroxide were always sumptuously liveable. It's all much too new-car smell, the aromas which emanate from the blending of musical ingredients replaced by the unnatural immateriality of processed carefreeness. Oh to light a fire under its big yellow belly.

Almost dead in the turquoise water, Within Without is chillout for the call-centre generation, and with more and more acts like Chad Valley sculpting the chillwave spirit into tight, functional songcraft, any more of this flat, barely sentient fare and the digi-dreamers will be in danger of a usurping.