At this point, it's as tiring to type the word "chillwave" as it is to read it on a page. It was easy to assume that gauzy, bedroom-produced takes on the soft-rock and pop of the 70s and 80s would be a passing fad. The style was instantly ubiquitous to the point of suspicion, the bedrooms in question geographically scattered. It almost had to be a critic's construct, wrapping up coincidental stylistic overlap with a flippant bow. But this 80s haze just hasn't passed as uneventfully as predicted. Ariel Pink finally honed his eccentricities towards professionalism, and Panda Bear gave the kids some cover by proving that duplicating Person Pitch's tone is an awfully tricky pursuit, even for him. But it's a record like Destroyer's Kaputt, which applied wit and decadence echoing the best of indie and glam rock and smooth AM radio sounds, that provides the real redemption. Done well, this buttery, shameless music can be transporting. The original chillwave, glo-fi, whatever-you-call-them bands have heard each other, toured together, collaborated in some instances since their initial hype. If there's still not a centralized scene, there's definitely a virtual kinship. Moving into their second acts, it stands to reason that this could be the moment when this stuff starts getting cohesive, complicated, exciting, even as most of us were ready to say goodbye forever to ghost impressions of summers past. This summer, sees the release of two new records that provide a perfect check-in point to see the mush has started turning into much of anything.
If such an accidental genre can have a definitive single, it'd have to be Washed Out's 2009 track, "Feel It All Around." Stylish, lazy and cool but also faintly ridiculous, the song perfectly themes IFC's hipster send-up Portlandia. As such, Ernest Greene's full-length debut, Within and Without, already feels like a sequel. Moving past the looped samples of his EPs, Greene teamed with producer Ben Allen (Merriweather Post Pavillion, Halcyon Digest, etc.) to round off the corners of the sound even further. The vocals, unintelligible mumbles now higher in the mix, communicate only vague impressions that blur between blankly sad and blank. The beats aren't quite as narcotically slow, and there are a few other subtle evolutions. Chairlift's Caroline Polachek pants through her guest spot on "You and I," adding a fleeting dose of sex appeal. In juxtaposition with her half-rapping, the instrumental recalls still-due-for-revival trip-hop production. "Soft" slightly disturbs the record's smooth gilt with some nauseous backing drone. But the record is never bold enough to annoy. This isn't "ambient pop" so much as muted pop music with the classic utility of ambient—to score a room, to set a mood, to not distract. It's tough to be annoyed by something so relentlessly palatable. You can hate it for being so inconsequential, but it doesn't sound bad exactly. Try getting angry at a Valium, thirty minutes after you've taken it.
More interesting but not as easily swallowed is Player Piano, the second Memory Tapes record from hermetic New Jerseyan Dayve Hawk. Despite some shy live shows, Hawk's a true recluse with a much more sour worldview than the chillaxers at large. His attempts at bigger pop moments take the opposite tack from Greene, getting knottier and more spastic rather than aiming for universal soothe. The record's biggest moment, "Sun Hits," is a shiny guitar pop jam with live drumming that seems to rebuke glo-fi clichés in both form and content (the key lyric is the haze-deflating "life is a dream if you never wake up"). Hawk sings with commitment, his nasal voice basically untweaked. It's a sometimes off-putting choice that's totally purposeful. He recent told British web magazine The Quietus, "I really hate my voice, but the weakness is the point, and that's why I use it." With that frame of reference, it's tough to accuse Hawk of pandering to those merely looking to zone out. His foggy pop experiments as Memory Cassette and the DFA-in-the-suburbs vibe of his first record made him an understandable candidate for chillwave inclusion, but now it's not so certain. But that's the chief question with this stuff as we go forward. Now that we've lumped all these dudes together more or less arbitrarily, can they rebel against or conform to something they didn't seek to join? Is anyone who doesn't continually eliminate friction from their music setting up to fail? Can more divergent strains of DIY pop idiosyncrasy flourish? It is starting to get a little bit more interesting, you have to admit.