The best musicians create memorable experiences. You may remember the first time you heard the fantastic guitar work on “Missed The Boat” by Modest Mouse or the percussive interchanges on the first Arcade Fire album. When you listen to highly textured songs — the howling dogs on “Mr. Noah” by Panda Bear or the aching moans on just about any Chelsea Wolfe song, you want to listen twice. How did they do that? What kind of wizardry was at work? Your world slowly creaks to a stop as you sit in that moment, transported by the ethereal magistry.
It turns out that Panda Bear, the side project of Noah Lennox, is a great reference point for the solo debut from Josh Dibb, who also happens to be one of the puzzle pieces in Animal Collective. Known by his stage name of Deakin (or Deacon), his first collection of songs is a varied mix of ambient rocks concoctions, acoustic ballads that channel Elliott Smith, and weird soundscapes that make you want to shoot, edit, and release an accompanying science-fiction film. It’s six years in the making, funded by Kickstarter, really bizarre at times, and surprisingly adept.
One of the things that works so well on this six-song album is that it shaves away some of the psych rock of the parent band and lets the fragmentations remain. In fact, if you isolated parts of an Animal Collective song, you might be left with the first single “Just Am,” which Dibb wrote way back in 2010. (In truth, the entire project was meant to help fund the fight against slavery in Mali and involved a music festival, so he can be forgiven for taking so long. All of the songs were written in 2010, but “Footy” and “Good House” were just recently recorded.)
Dibb has a way of bringing you into his world. Fortunately, it’s not quite a house of mirrors or a psych ward; the song structures hold tightly together. The opening track “Golden Chords” features some furious finger-picking but has an aching and reflective tone. It starts with a thin echo of a synth, barely registering; his voice cracks out words about change and making tough decisions. Like the music, the lyrics are always fragments and thoughts held loosely.
“Just Am” then catches you with a piano trill, setting the stage for some later moments on this short collection that give you hope for more solo music from Dibb. “Brought here by courage or illusion…” he sings, determined to overcome personal regrets. As a songwriter, it’s obvious Dibb was trying to parse out some difficult subjects in his life, perhaps related to the discovery that 21M people are held in slavery around the world, according to the International Labour Organization. He references cages in the song, both physical and imagined. “As I hold on to things that dearly need replacing…” he sings, making a deeper point about how our possessions tend to own us. (This is where I put in an obvious plug to help with an organization like IJM.)
It’s at the end of “Just Am” that you start to hear the brilliance of Deakin’s songcraft. The sci-fi movie finally starts, alien voices echoing like they are planning an invasion. It’s intentionally otherworldly because, as you may know, Mali is located in Africa. It’s the same technique director Neill Blomkamp used in the movie District 9 to create a sense of discomfort and alienation. The song blends into “Shadow Mine” and then bleeds into “Footy” with its house-crushing power chords. “Seed Song” is another ambient rock song with the same chanting, twisting voices of a foreign species. I like how “Good House” closes out the album as it began, all droning guitars and strings plucked one by one like a ticking clock. There’s not much time left, is there?