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Dead Air Fresheners - Separated By Commas [Dubuque Strange Music Society - 2011]

For me, the letters DAF will always stand for Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft, but the Dead Air Fresheners, a free-spirited, generally experimental outfit out of Seattle/Olympia/Portland, do no disservice to the acronym.  Armed with an array of cheap guitar pedals, suburban neo-dadaist cheekiness and an irrespressible drive to press on into new realms of thought and sound, they make up for what they lack in professionalism with their abundant enthusiasm and lack of inhibition.  Evidently believers in power of spontaneous and even accidental creation, most of the band's music is free improvisation with varying electronic setups.

This new album, "Separated by Commas", is a collection of collaborations, in which a different artist joins the Dead Air Fresheners for the purposes of each track.  For the most part, any but longtime fans of the band would be hard pressed to discern the guests' specific contributions, as the members of the band already switch between roles and instruments with each composition. 

In each song, there coexist several threads of sonic detritus, vaguely related in time and space.  Though there are more interesting sounds as well, usually present is dull, mid-scooped guitar noise that for lack of any clarity or distinctive features, is hard not to tune out.  The first 3 tracks especially are low visibility, stagnant pools of sound in which different instruments have congealed into a muddy, unobtrusive and mid-heavy bed of textures.

The first sounds on the album are the smokey, dread soaked guitar strums of "The Autumn of Our Discontent", which evoke a sort of melancholy campfire atmosphere with their tranced out consistency.  A single darkened chord scintillates in the dark as different guitar strings are accentuated.  It's too bad the whispering vocalist is content to amuse himself with such inane distortions of popular phrases as "ashes, ashes, we all fall... up" and ultimately meaningless and shallow observations such as "never and forever are a lot alike"; what atmosphere there was in the track is rendered unconvincing at best.

The first half of "Cold Hands, Cold Heart" is mildly engaging clinking and rattling chains and voice with chorus, phasing and pitch processing.  Then, someone stumbles upon and a harsh, angular harmonized guitar string noise loop with a jerking, lizardlike style of movement and it gives the piece an exotic, otherworldly feel.  The Dead Air Fresheners have created an alien locale, and it's the first memorable moment of the album. 

The spacier "Successfulness" grew on me with several listens to the album, with some nice distant and dreamlike reverberant vocal sounds over the sounds of chimes, muffled machinery and filtered feedback.

Listeners may be, as I was, jerked awake by the nasal, mosquito-like, exasperated yet somehow sickeningly calculated, cartoonish and overdone spoken word of one Jennifer Robin.  This 13 minute tirade of a 4th track, "The Scarlet Market", is unfortunately imbued with most every downfall of college theatre.  A certain self importance, coupled with her constant pushing and straining of her voicebox to create the most haranguing, exaggerated whine imaginable, make it easy not to notice that the lyrics themselves are a surrealism-infused and quite clever rant against the absurd structure of American food services, liberally laced with all sorts of incongrous body horror imagery.  The Dead Air Fresheners accompany her with distorted fragments of almost Throbbing Gristle-esque pedal processed synthesizer and samples, matching noise and narration in a similar way to groups like Smegma.  They do make the piece a bit more listenable, though it's far too long.

The second half of the album is noticeably noisier and denser than the first half, but otherwise continues in the same vein.  In "You Haven't Always Been This Way", currents of grimey distortion work their gusty way up out of the faint, fuzzed out tracing of a 4 on the floor rhythm and flurries of exotic Gamelan percussion.  While it's a good track, the songs on the album have started to blur together in my mind at this point.

For "Take This Shove Culture and Pop It", guitar noise is clustered around a repeating deep, forboding note from a piano, claustrophobic and opaque rather than evocative and ambient.  There's something like an actual solo buried in there, which at times feels like random practicing and noodling, and other times skirts near black metal atmosphere.  There's some decent sound here but nothing that catches my attention.

"Dead Lips Read the News" rebounds marvellously with some spliced samples of grief-stricken romantic classical violin, which begin very naturally to form into tastefully delayed loops, only to be overcome by wet surges of distortion.  Indecipherable, resonant voice, time stretched to the point of unintelligibility, soon appears, providing a glittering compliment to more constant sounds underneath.  This is my favorite track on here.

So "Separated By Commas" is a cool and sporadically creative album, but the band wastes a bit too much time in murky and stagnant sonic territory and their jams are not as distinct from one another, or as purposeful, as they could be.  I have a hunch the band's energy would translate better live than it does on this obviously low budget recording.  If you've got an insatiable love for free rhythm avant rock improvisation and a stomach for college level absurdist theatre, boost my rating to 3/5.

Rating: 2 out of 5Rating: 2 out of 5Rating: 2 out of 5Rating: 2 out of 5Rating: 2 out of 5

Josh Landry
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