A lot of music aims for summer, the idea of summer as a season of feel good warmth, of fullness, but also as something experienced in youth—kaleidescopically-colored and impossibly luminous—which can never quite be recaptured. No matter how exuberant the reality of it may be, the idea of summer is always spun through with nostalgia.
This is the starting point for K Records’ Desolation Wilderness, an Olympia group cloaked in California mystique. Their name itself is drawn from the wilderness area in and around the Sierra Nevada mountain range and their latest record, New Universe, carries songs that directly reference locales—”Venice Beach” and “San Francisco 2AM.” They seem to set out to create a liquid haze for the listener to enter into, a space where everything appears indefinite, blurred through panes of swirling water. The sound of surf and the pleasant distortion of the world seen with the sun in your eyes. Atmosphere takes priority over structure and the stories told (like the vocals themselves) get contracted into a few intelligible words. For the most part, Nicolaas Zwart’s voice is just another instrument, another sound thrown into the mix of reverb-heavy, chiming guitars.
The obvious reference for this sort of thing is Loveless, but Desolation Wilderness stays closer to guitar driven indie bands whose guitars still sound like guitars. Deerhunter’s latest, Rainwater Casette Exchange, carries a similar vibe and style, but the way the vocals sink into Desolation’s arrangements has more in common with some of Bradford Cox’s Atlas Sound material. The darker aspects that turn up in Cox’s work seem completely out of Desolation Wilderness’s range. They are much more concerned with creating a mutant brand of happy-go-lucky Beach Boys pop—starting from songs about beaches, girls, sentiments or wandering and letting all the edges go fuzzy, one sound bleeding into the next to create a states of dreamy imprecision, of things as they are remembered rather than how they really happened.
Inevitably, a lot of the songs flow into each other: “Venice Beach” sets the mood and there is never much of a shift. The songs don’t really make you remember them by their individual merits but are more about simply making you lose your grounding and just float along with them, letting the words mean whatever you like, whatever is evoked by the sounds surrounding you. “Moon Dreams” and the closer, “No Tomorrow (Version)” are the two best stand alone songs here. The former finds Zwaak playing off some reverb-extended whimsy over gently shimmering, surfy guitars, verging on Matt Ward territory as his voice takes on more weight of expression.
And that just may be what Desolation Wilderness needs more of. New Universe is a nice record, a pleasant record that shows the band to be extremely apt at developing a mood and letting it play out over the course of an album. But everything just seems to slip through your fingers; there’s nothing to hold onto. And there is nothing wrong with that…it’s a pleasurable enough experience. But the best groups that use the human voice (and its manipulation) as part of an overall atmosphere—emptying it of the weight of words and precise meanings—manage to make the voice something expressive in its own right. They don’t hide it so much as make it something singular, familiar yet strange, resonating with all the things that remain unsaid. For now, Desolation Wilderness stops short at the memory of the ecstasy of youthful summers, leaving the ecstasy itself hovering off on the horizon.