Rock stars don’t exist anymore, not in the way they used to anyway. Bono’s still earnest and wearing his signature sunglasses. Prince is still nuts. The Boss is still The Boss. But new rock stars just aren’t created anymore. Instead, weirdos and college kids are recording fuzzy, strange songs in their dorm rooms and basements. That’s how we end up with a mysterious and off-kilter figure like Blank Dogs. The singular visionary behind the Blank Dogs moniker doesn’t reveal his name (like Burial…I guess), doesn’t print photos of himself in album jackets (though there are some press photos of him with his face wrapped in gauze), and basically offers as little information about himself as possible. What we’re left with is the music itself, which is truly bizarre, but most certainly captivating.
Blank Dogs has released several singles on 12-inch, 7-inch and cassette, almost all of which are out of print. With Under and Under, this distorted mystery musician offers up his most sprawling release, featuring 15 tracks on CD and 20 on the expanded vinyl edition, all showing off the perverted depths of Blank Dogs’ melodic sensibility. Not as hopelessly distorted as Wavves, nor as nostalgic as Crystal Stilts, Blank Dogs’ spooky, insular post-punk is a fun, if slightly unsettling sonic treat. Shades of Joy Division and The Cure play a major role in the dark atmosphere of Under and Under, but for every goth rock bassline, there’s a vibrant and often fun synth counterpoint to bring a bit of playfulness to the music’s often eerie undertones.
Under and Under‘s first track, “No Compass,” finds Blank Dogs getting a bit silly with its kitschy Halloween keyboards, which takes some of the edge away from the otherwise rocking garage pop track. “L Machine” is a chaotic combination of out-of-tune keyboards and guitars, with sounds of breaking glass just to make it seem that much less pleasant. Yet by “Night Night,” Blank Dogs has begun to escalate into something more coherent and melodic, juxtaposing reverb heavy surf guitar riffs with an eyeliner smearing goth rock chorus. The beats in “Open Shut” immediately recall those of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control,” yet the song is much less murky, opting for soaring keyboard leads and a vocal performance that sounds more like Ian Curtis on a bright summer day.
Single “Setting Fire to Your House” (which has a pretty disturbing video) is the most immediate track on the album by the time it arrives, built on snapping drum machine beats and a powerful four-chord chorus. “Around the Room,” however, is like the meeting place between Faith-era Cure and Chairs Missing-era Wire, which is a pretty good place to be. Seemingly out of nowhere comes “Tin Birds,” an absolutely glorious new wave pop song with glimmering guitar riffs and a sprightly beat. Of course, the vocals remain obscured with distortion and woozy effects, but Blank Dogs still make it work within the context of this otherwise sparkling pop song. And with “Slowing Down,” Blank Dogs even pull off a ballad of sorts, albeit one with a fairly aggressive, noisy chorus.
On a Blank Dogs record, you can always count on lots of mechanized drums, swirling guitars, thrift shop synthesizers and vocals seemingly broadcast from behind a volcanic waterfall in outer space. But those elements make for a surprisingly great combination. Under and Under sounds like the work of someone who doesn’t want to be a rock star, or even someone that never wants to be recognized, period. The effort to remain incognito may very well prove successful (after all, I don’t know what the guy looks like), but public persona or not, Blank Dogs makes some pretty spectacular lo-fi new wave.
Video: “Setting Fire To Your House”