Multi-instrumentalist and compulsive band-starter Fred Thomas has been involved in a veritable laundry list of projects over the course of his still-young career, his work with the soulful twee of indie-pop band Saturday Looks Good to Me being perhaps the most notable to date. Now Thomas embarks on his first solo outing with his self-titled debut as City Center, crafting a record of sparse psychedelics via detached bursts of percussive lo-fi pop and a couple extended, meditative soundscapes. That probably sounds like familiar terrain at this stage of the decade, but Thomas musters enough unique perspective to drive this latest batch of explorations into his own niche.
Throughout City Center you can identify those bits and pieces that the upper echelons of ambient psych-pop have already staked out as their own: bedroom drone a la Atlas Sound, High Places-like tribalist percussion, Panda Bear-esque sun-soaked sampledelic tendencies. By all rights, this should be getting into played out rehash territory, right? Yet somehow, the record maintains a basic, if somewhat intangible, independence. Thomas’ solo work certainly doesn’t sound like it exists in a vacuum—these connections are real and apparent—but, whether found in song structure, the progression of melodies, the record’s richly layered arrangement and production, or particular twists in the droning haze of ambience, the songs here seem to build and unfold in ways that speak to the hand of their creator.
Opening with the gurgling churn of “Killer Whale,” Fred Thomas intones: “Everyone else is gone / Don’t let me go / I can’t reach you / The waves come to eat you…” as a slow sonic crescendo threatens to overtake you. After pushing through relatively accessible gems “Open/House” and “Gladest” (hey, are those hooks!?), Thomas delves into the meaty centerpieces of the album—the dense “Bleed Blood” and “Cloud Center.” While the former features Thomas immersed in his best Panda Bear impersonation, the latter unravels with noteworthy patience. A transcendent collage of looping, phased-out electronics, reverbed tambourine, and billowing layers of vocals, the monumental “Cloud Center” is perhaps the achievement of City Center. His vision is at its strongest in this moment; by encapsulating influences and subverting them to his own bent, Thomas molds the song into a mesmerizing flood of kaleidoscopic sound. After easing the listener away from such weight with the sparse detox of “You Are a Force,” City Center closes with a second round of more tangible, pop-driven psychedelia.
While no doubt successful on a whole, traversing well-covered ground and relying on your perspective to define your work is a double-edged sword. Fred Thomas can ultimately call this work his own, but comparisons to some of his contemporaries can be less than flattering in some instances. City Center doesn’t quite absorb, soar, pop, or transcend like Panda Bear’s Person Pitch, Atlas Sound’s Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel, or Here We Go Magic’s eponymous debut. Regardless of this fact, the record does what it does well and manages to do so on its own terms—a worthy accomplishment for any debut.