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Washed Out Biography
Within and Without is the debut album by 28 year-old Atlanta-based songwriter and producer Ernest Greene, AKA Washed Out. Long adored and critically lauded in the blog world, Greene first came to prominence in the summer of 2009 after unassumingly posting a handful of bedroom-recorded tracks to his Myspace page from his family home in the seclusion of the tiny rural city of Perry, Georgia. “I’d been writing music on my own for three or four years previous to that,” Greene explains, “mostly as a way to experiment with songwriting processes. Those were just the first I ever shared.”
Despite such modest intentions however, those first songs (many of which would appear on the acclaimed Life of Leisure EP of later that year) were about as complete an opening statement from an artist as imaginable. A heady, psychedelic concoction of what Pitchfork’s Mark Hogan termed “romantic nostalgia and homespun textures,” songs such as “Belong” and “Feel It All Around”—Greene’s biggest hit to date—artfully match the glossy melody of ’80s synth pop, the widescreen scope of early ’90s Balearic dance music and the slowed, heavy bounce of southern Hip Hop production to gorgeously wistful vocals with results as undeniably idiosyncratic and original as they are deeply accessible.
A remarkably impressive feat of songwriting and production given Greene’s means at the time (essentially little more than a laptop, sample bank and microphone), the songs of Life of Leisure saw him, alongside friend Chaz Bundick, AKA Toro y Moi, and the more established likes of Ariel Pink and Panda Bear, designated leader of a newly emerging DIY movement identified by David Keenan of The Wire magazine as “hypnagogic pop” for its romantic, retro-futurist re-imagining of pop music past.
“Hypnagogic pop is music that reaches beyond its performers’ abilities. It refashions ’80s chart pop-rock into hazy, psychedelic drone,” wrote Keenan at the time. Although, as Within and Without proves, it was merely Greene’s simplistic working processes and not any lack of ability that lent Life of Leisure its slightly lo-fi tone. And while all the dubious new genre tags attached to Greene (“hypnagogic pop,” “glo-fi,” “chillwave,” etc.) serve to illustrate his importance as a genuine leader they should not be allowed to distract from his primary talent as a great pop songwriter in the purest sense.
The rest of 2009 and early 2010 saw Greene taking Life of Leisure on tour in North America and Europe; working through various incarnations (initially solo with laptop and then joined by contemporaries Small Black as backing band) with increasing success. Along the way Washed Out inspired a legion of devoted supporters, followers and imitators before seemingly wilfully slipping back into obscurity again-just as the project was beginning to leave the internet ghetto behind in favor of bonafide real world success.
It’s fair to say, then, that Within and Without arrives with a great deal of expectation in tow. Rather than capitalize on the momentum of Life of Leisure immediately by rushing another record out, Greene consciously took a step back from the label scrum surrounding him and considered how best to move the project on. “The sound of those early songs was an aesthetic choice, but also a practical one,” as Greene puts it, “it allowed me to merge and blend a variety of samples and sourced work I was incorporating into my songs at the time. With Within and Without, however, I wanted the songs to develop from a more live, organic place and so some things necessarily changed.”
These changes, however, were not simply the results of a bolstered budget and heaps of studio polish—Greene self-funded the record and actually returned to the perfect isolation of the idyllic lakeside Georgian settings where the Washed Out project began in order to get to work. Instead, he set about adjusting his working methods, “re-learning traditional ways of writing,” as he puts it.
Whereas before Greene pieced his gauzy, looping pop songs from obscure samples and segments of re-constructed found-sound plucked from an intimidatingly vast record collection, the widescreen, ecstatic melodies of Within and Without are all of his own composition and Washed Out no longer just a bedroom production project but a real band (now playing live as a five-piece that includes Greene’s wife Blair). “A lot of the focus while writing the new songs was on how they’d sound live,” says Greene, “that’s something that never quite translated how I wanted with the earlier stuff.” Not quite flying entirely solo, however, the services of esteemed producer and fellow Georgian Ben Allen were enlisted for co-production duties-Allen added a certain poise and conciseness to proceedings in much the same way he harnessed Animal Collective’s psychedelic sprawl into pop gold without sacrificing any of their inventiveness on the group’s breakthrough LP Merriweather Post Pavilion.
The result of this more considered approach to composition and enhanced production is a record that retains the jubilant, sun-kissed energy that lit up the imaginations of so many the first time around but also refines it-conjuring a far more nuanced and balanced sense of emotion from a more organic pallet of sounds and textures. At times Within and Without is almost orchestral in its arrangements and it is consistently, achingly beautiful in its effortless, longing melody. Whereas much of the talk around Life of Leisure was focused on its lingering sense of nostalgia, of halcyon summers spent loafing in the sun, Within And Without exists very much in the present, encompassing all the excitement and turmoil which that entails; for all its romance there is a deep yearning. Across its nine songs it feels equally sad and triumphant, anxious and blissed-out, often all at once.
Released on July 11th/12th (through Weird World in the UK/EU and Sub Pop in North America, respectively), Within and Without is a summer record to span the seasons; a collection of songs as comfortable sound-tracking moments of peaceful relaxation as they are lighting up a party, and a strikingly mature next step from a uniquely focused, sincere artist.
In the depths of southern Ontario, nestled between Canada’s most dangerous super-highway and the banks of the laconic, ironically-named Speed River, there is a mid-size town called Guelph, also known as The Royal City. More recently, because few people can recall the historic reasons for that Victorian-era subtitle, and because it is more appropriately musical than royal in the twenty-first century anyway, Guelph was rechristened as “The City of Music.” And it is, in fact, a community that takes its music to heart, having sent forward any number of its native sons and daughters in indie band formation. It is also the base of the Hillside Festival, another local effort with international effects, most notably for introducing music lovers to early versions of such acts as Broken Social Scene and The Arcade Fire.
It was in this strangely creative setting, or more accurately on its somewhat more mundane south-end suburban fringe, that Memoryhouse was conceptualized some five years ago.
Memoryhouse didn’t actually set out to be a band. It took form as a collaborative project meant to serve as an artistic outlet for composer Evan Abeele and photographer Denise Nouvion. Evan, a dedicated student of classical music and a pop-music encyclopedist, intended Memoryhouse to be a multimedia art project, pairing his instrumental compositions with Denise’s photographs and short films. Combining their musical and visual artwork seemed the most promising, and least unhealthy, strategy for battling archetypal adolescent angst worsened by the paralyzing effects of Canadian winter. What they wanted was to test ways to blur the boundaries between genres, to weave a synthesis of music and photography. As Denise explains their collaborative cross-media process, “we start with photos that we want to write around, to give us some kind of aesthetic grounding.”
“When people think of music today, they try to compartmentalize it into different genres,” Evan observes. “I think the sound we have right now fits ‘out’ of time, but, obviously, is still ‘in’ our time. It’s something that could have happened many years ago, but it also sounds contemporary.”
Memory, then, both in terms of looking back and as embedded in contemporary culture, is the basis of the Memoryhouse project. The band’s name itself commemorates the work of German neo-classical composer/artist Max Richter, specifically his 2001 album Memoryhouse, as well as the watershed impact of that album on the Abeele-Nouvion project. As Evan explained in an interview with Pitchfork, “for me, in my musical development, there was a ‘before Memoryhouse’ and an ‘after Memoryhouse’…Hearing that fundamentally changed the way I approached composition. I just wanted to pay tribute to that. I wanted to have that to ground us, wherever we took our own music.”
Where Evan and Denise took their own music was a quick distance from where they began, recording, refining, and conceptualizing their aural-visual collage in the bedroom of a suburban family home. Individually and together, they experimented with themes, lyrics and multiple layers of instrumentation, with Nouvion’s soft, ethereal voice anchoring the frozen textures of Abeele’s compositions with frank sentimentality—a uniqure approach towards humanizing the electro-pop compositions they were creating.
Their first extended stint as performers made for a huge learning curve, but after a few extended tours in Europe and the United States, they were soon signed by Seattle’s legendary Sub Pop Records. And in September 2011 Memoryhouse released an improved version of their original home-recorded EP The Years on Sub Pop.
When it came time to record their debut full-length album, Memoryhouse knew exactly what they wanted. “I think there is an unfortunate tendency for bands to rush their first album…jumping into a studio without getting a chance to fully develop their voice,” states Abeele. Memoryhouse, however, took their time, touring the songs that would eventually comprise their debut full-length for a full two years. “The album is a big leap for us, but it’s also a completely organic one,” posits Nouvion. The 10-track album, produced by Abeele, with assistance from friend, collaborator, and occasional Memoryhouse bassist Barzin Hassani Rad, finds Memoryhouse heading toward a new clarity in composition as well as sound; a more organic direction for artists who are, in their own words, transitioning from a “bedroom recording project” into a fully realized band. Even their range of influences has expanded to include such acts as Emmylou Harris, Dusty Springfield and Fleetwood Mac. “These vocalists, Emmylou, Stevie Nicks…they have undeniable warmth to them, but also a sense of identity, or ‘character’,” says Abeele. Nouvion’s voice has never been more present than on the new album, which finds her stepping away from Memoryhouse’s past reverbed sound in favor of a more upfront, and intimate vocal affectation. They half-seriously refer to their new sound as “Taylor Swift with Built to Spill as her backing band.”
The new album is titled The Slideshow Effect. The title speaks to what hasn’t changed for Memoryhouse: their continuing interest in the synthesis of the aural and the visual. It refers to the photographic/cinematic technique of zooming and panning to animate still images, often used in documentary film making to give movement to archival photographs. The Slideshow Effect will be released on Sub Pop Records on February 28, 2012.