Sound: The turbulent information age has forced us all to embrace more change in less time and it shows no signs of stopping. In politics, mass media can swing public opinion in days. In technology, innovation is so rife that the cutting edge rarely stays sharp for longer than a few months. In music, artists struggle constantly with the often opposing forces of audience expectation and their own desire to push boundaries. So many lose their cutting edge in the process, but California's dredg have been lucky to have a fanbase willing to be taken along a journey of evolution and progression within the experimental rock world. But "Chuckles And Mr. Squeezy" is a real fork in the road; see, it's barely rock at all. With famed hip-hop producer Dan The Automator at the helm, the band have created something very different, a real test for an audience that was starting to become accustomed to philosophical, high-concept rock records.
First of all, the band dynamic is cast away entirely - the members wrote in isolation and exchanged ideas through the internet. In many ways the final product reflects this; only vocalist Gavin Hayes gets regular airtime on his "usual" instrument while the rest slot into a slick pop production through programmed drums and synthesisers aplenty. But is "slick" the word? It has a real vulgarity to it at times. Songs like "Another Tribe" or "Sun Goes Down" are rather obtuse in their adoption of pop idioms, as if to stick out a tongue to those who expect rock and rock only. Understandable, perhaps, given the fixation many have with the sound of their cerebral and introspective 2002 effort, "El Cielo", but at times it seems like the band have cut off their nose to spite their face.
Fans will recognise tunes like "The Ornament" and "Where I'll End Up" from previous recordings and live bootlegs, but they seem to have been sterilised during the production process, synth shakers and dry bass tracks turning them as neutral and unsettling as the cover art. However, there are fingerprints of classic dredg writing to be found. Mark Engles' disciplined guitar playing is used as textural detailing alongside various loops, samples and extraneous noises and as the album sinks in, past works do begin to come to mind. "Somebody Is Laughing" and single "The Thought Of Losing You" in particular evoke melodic elements of "Leitmotif" and "Catch Without Arms" respectively. // 7
Lyrics: The soul of "Chuckles..." music shines through the cracks of the callous production, and its lyrics are much the same. Peculiar uses of repetition, rhyme and clich mar many tracks but underneath lay glimpses of quality. In a decision unlikely to make the stylistic shifts any easier to swallow, this is the first dredg record that is not weaved together by a grand vision and concept. Hayes instead writes in a very personal way, telling stories of his own life and those immediately around him. "Upon Returning", for example, talks of the anxieties of having a sibling in the Army, and is one of the most successful ventures alongside the troubadour-ish "Kalathat". // 6
Overall Impression: It seems "Chuckles..." is a necessary departure for this band, a low-key experiment that has been turned into a major event thanks to the touring and press responsibilities working bands now have to commit to. In its versatility it can be many things to many men, bouncy and life affirming or debilitating and creepy. The overhaul in instrumentation will be an instant red flag to many but at the heart of the songwriting it is the same band doing what they've always done: change. The difficulty is that they are moving in too many directions at once and the album ends before you can get a grasp on any singular creative thrust, beyond change itself. Therapeutic, rejuvenating and unavoidable for the band, but not a work that stands alongside its predecessors. // 6
- Duncan Geddes aka duncang (c) 2011