If there’s diamonds in their eyes then I will rob them blind
I generally don’t care much for lo-fi recordings; I even resisted Iron & Wine’s earliest releases for years because of their scratchy, lackluster fidelity. Lossy mp3s drive me crazy. Even an album as perfect as Daniel, Fred & Julie pushed the limits for me. But this Dusted record is decidedly lo-fi in a high-minded way. The recording has a fairly limited dynamic range, all parts of the mix clamoring for the same middle ground, lending a kind of equanimity to the overall tone. As a means to that end the songs themselves are about as basic as they could be, extremely limited arrangements that focus on one or two sounds and what the band members are capable of doing with them.
Speaking of band members: Dusted is close to the polar opposite of main songwriter Brian Borcherdt’s day job in Toronto band Holy Fuck. Ostensibly an electronic band with better songwriters, more talent, and live elements (as opposed to laptops), the group was recently described by no less indie authority than Pitchfork in this manner:
We often say casually that bands are “awesome” without thinking about the true meaning of the word – Holy Fuck actually inspire awe.
And that’s true. Their latest, Latin, continues what’s becoming a bit of a trend of bands with names that can’t be said on the radio producing music so good that programmers are finding ways around it because it MUST be heard. It’s an album that tweaks and teases the idea of dance music into its own unique form and does it with a heavy emphasis on melody and rhythm.
You could probably say the same about Dusted, minus the dance element. Instead you have an album whose esthetic is based on slightly-obscured melody; a collection of songs that the listener actually has to work to appreciate.
On first blush Total Dust seems like the songs were put through the wash. The vocals are simultaneously hushed and uniformly distorted, as if Borcherdt was singing through a blown-out amplifier that was turned way down. His voice, especially on the bass-driven, feedback-drenched opener “All Comes Down” seems somewhat detached, it’s upper-register feeling sleepier than on anything Holy Fuck ever produced. As he repeatedly intones “When will it all come down?” you get the sense that the record is all about tone, established here (and on the Rorschach-baiting cover) as a bit messy and downtrodden.
The second track is maybe the catchiest here and is definitely the closest thing to upbeat the record has to offer. “(Into The) Atmosphere” could be a indie pop hit, evoking The National being played through a speaker whose rods and cones were covered by a blanket. The guitar is Dessner-esque in that sense and the insistent kick drum pushes the song along at a good tempo. The atmospheric, phased noise that washes over the song’s second half lies somewhere between feedback and white squall, kept at bay just enough to allow the melodicism behind it to bring a smile to your face.
Like the subsequent “Cut Them Free,” these songs establish what you’ll find on the rest of Total Dust: songs that are surprisingly well-constructed when you actually dig down into them. It’s quite remarkable, really; if you’re only half-listening to this record it will pass by in no time (it only spans about a half hour anyway), seeming bland and overly similar with each song blending into each other. But if you listen intently and work your way past the layers of obfuscating distortion, fuzz, and reverb you can be richly rewarded. Consider a song like “Bruises” that starts with barely audible guitar and heavily reverbed vocals but opens up to include distant percussion and layers of keyboards and electric guitar that form an incredibly bittersweet melody. It might be one of the loveliest songs you’ll hear this year if you have the patience to allow it to present its charms.
That’s what we’re left with on Total Dust, really. It’s a true headphone album, one that begs you to strap your headphones on, close your eyes, and listen on repeat as each layer in each song gradually becomes more and more apparent. In a world of painfully obvious pop music Dusted have created an album that not only demands you work as a listener but also makes sure to deliver an adequate reward when you do.