Dan Deacon is an outstanding composer. He is also a goddamned instigator. So while he made his Carnegie Hall debut this year, a few weeks later he was getting 10,000 people to do crazy dances at a massive Occupy Wall Street rally in Union Square. Deacon has always made trailblazing music that moves people to do things they wouldn't normally do. But on his new album, America, he takes that idea a giant step further. "I hope the people who take the time to listen to these songs enjoy them," says Deacon, "but I hope that anyone looking for anything beyond that can find inspiration to change the world for the better."
There's some alchemy going on here. Yes, the lyrics are full of bleak, even apocalyptic imagery, but the music is keenly hopeful, with beats that make you want to dance, teeming major keys that lift the spirit, and Deacon's voice hollering defiantly from the depths of his own joyous cacophony. Eclipsing its own despair, the music simulates the rush of being involved in something bigger and better than yourself.
Dan Deacon shows are renowned for the spectacle of hundreds, even thousands, of jubilant people doing coordinated movement, whether it's vast, swirling circles, long, snaking lines or just over-the-top dance contests. It's a sight to behold, but it's even more amazing to participate. And for Deacon, what is ostensibly just "fun" started to take on a profound dimension, of people uniting and claiming physical space in an ecstatic act of empowerment. He saw a metaphor in there, a connection with revolutionary movements like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. America is the soundtrack of that realization — like James Brown once said, "Get up! Get into it! Get involved!"
After 2009's Bromst, Deacon did a lot of touring, but he also worked a lot in the classical world. In 2011, he played his long-form piece Ghostbuster Cook: Origin of the Riddler with the acclaimed So Percussion as part of New York's prestigious Ecstatic Music Festival, and New York magazine named it of one of the top 10 classical music performances of 2011. In 2012, Deacon returned to that same festival and premiered the evening-length An Opal Toad with Obsidian Eyes with the NOW Ensemble and the Calder String Quartet. Canada's 50-piece Kitchener-Waterloo orchestra premiered Deacon's first orchestral works, "Fiddlenist Rim" and "Song of the Winter Solstice," in 2011, the same year of Deacon's first film score, for Francis Ford Coppola's Twixt. And then there was that Carnegie Hall debut, another So Percussion collaboration, in celebration of the music of John Cage. All of these became part of Deacon's rich tapestry, woven in with countless sweaty, grimy DIY shows in basements and lofts, viral Youtube videos, and even two comedy tours.
Deacon started out as a solo electronic musician, but after doing tours with the Dan Deacon Ensemble, Deacon began to embrace making music with large groups of people. And so for America, he resolved to do something he'd never done before: try things out in the studio with different players on different instruments. Again: community and people power. America is a study in density, a thick but nuanced mix of acoustic and synthetic timbres, a mix of Deacon's pop side (as in 2007's Spiderman of the Rings) and his more composerly side (Bromst). There's also dance music culture in the DNA of this music, but suffused with the top-to-bottom distortion and overdrive of noise music and the instrumentation and sweep of orchestral music. America has echoes of Steve Reich and Terry Riley for sure, but Deacon engages with minimalism in a maximalist way — dense and relentless, it's crammed with sound and joy, an overwhelming experience to immerse and dance within.
The opening "Guilford Avenue Bridge" is a vivid instrumental memoir about the early days of the Wham City art collective, when Deacon would throw parties and nervously wait to see if anyone would show up. You can hear his heart pounding with anticipation via powerhouse drumming by Dan Deacon Ensemble member Denny Bowen, then a lull that seems to suggest the empty loft waiting to be filled, and finally a triumphal reprise as people come streaming in for an anarchic night of serious fun.
"True Thrush" is about conformism, apathy, alienation, and just plain losing your way. Pretty grim, right? But it's a catchy, anthemic, fist-pumping summer jam, possibly the greatest pop song Deacon has ever created. Redemption and transcendence are baked right into the music. Rise above, people! "Lots" is another powerhouse, a rock song that harbors all the animating frictions of America: On the one hand, the narrator walks a dire, apocalyptic landscape, and on the other, he vows, "Now we stand upon a chance/ to break the chains and break the lance" — to break the cycle of oppression and war and build a new world.
The instrumental "Prettyboy" is an idyllic respite from the strife and clamor, just like the song's namesake, Prettyboy Reservoir Park, about an hour north of Baltimore. But then comes "Crash Jam" — what Deacon calls "a drum-focused vocoder barnburner" — about the timeless, healing power of nature. The song was inspired by a Dan Deacon Ensemble tour that didn't really gel until the band camped out in a state park in New Mexico and bonded over the campfire — another song about communion and the almost spiritual power a deeply united group of people can have.
The album's finale, the 21-minute magnum opus "USA," features 22 virtuosic players, many recruited from the prestigious Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore representing every section of the orchestra in bringing to life this epic cross-country sonic travelogue. As Deacon hurtled across the country on his many tours, he concluded that we've lost touch with the beauty of our own land, and spare few opportunities to despoil it. The words, as Deacon says, are "about the destruction of that land and the feeling of being disenfranchised, of having no connection to your home," but the exultant music of "USA" celebrates that beauty in all its vast and varied glory.
And so what to do? America doesn't pretend to supply the answers, but it does offer the energy to help us find them. As Deacon is fond of saying, "The future surrounds us. Let us begin."
Grand Buffet is a hip-hop duo from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, made up of Jackson O'Connell-Barlow (stage names: Iguanadon, Grape-a-Don, Nate Kukla, and Mr. Pennsylvania) and Jarrod Weeks (stage names: M-Dog, Lord Grunge, Matt Kukla, Fred Durts). Their music is a unique brand of humorous, often satirical rap. They have toured several times with notable artists such as Sage Francis, Sole, Cex, and the late Wesley Willis. They have also toured the USA and Europe extensively, and have a large dedicated fanbase in both. In 2004, they toured Canada on the Suicide Girls tour; they finished a European tour with Sage Francis in 2005, and are, as of August 2005, on tour with Magnolia Electric Co.
Grand Buffet has been together since 1996. They have released two self-produced, full length LP's, Scrooge McRock (1997, out of print) and Sparkle Classic (2000), as well as a "Trilogy of Terror": 3 EP's - Undercover Angels (2002), Cigarette Beach (2002), and Pittsburgh Hearts (2003). Each of these releases has included different names for Jackson and Jarrod in the liner notes; the stage names are listed chronologically from Scrooge McRock to Cigarette Beach - Pittsburgh Hearts attributed them by their real names. Their Myspace account also lists them as Viceroy (Jarrod) and Plaps (Jackson). There was a third member, a DJ named G-Rod, early on who left the group in 1998 - thus the liner art for both Scrooge McRock and Dicer contain three member's pictures instead of two. In 2004, they released a full length CD of outtakes, rarities, and radio performances called Dicer: The Unheard Funk Tracks. In 2005, they released a greatest hits collection, Five Years of Fireworks, which included a new track and a bonus DVD filled with music videos, outtakes, backstage antics, and live material. A sequel to Dicer has also been announced for this year.
The band has often distanced itself from Scrooge McRock when the topic is mentioned in interviews, dismissing it as more of a retrospectively-viewed collection of demos than a proper album. For the following two years, they worked on material for an album that was to be called Peter Weller (after the actor), which ultimately was never released, culminating in an abandonment in 1999. (Several tracks from these sessions were released on Dicer.) The band refers to that year as "The Zero Year", and it was at this point that the foundation work was laid for Sparkle Classic, the earliest of their work they consider part of the official discography.
Grand Buffet have been working for the better part of the decade on a yet-unreleased but long-promised children's album entitled Gorilla and Fox which will presumably include live favorite "Let's Go Find the Cat!" Their next full length, currently unannounced, was last mentioned in August 2004 as being titled King Vision, and is expected to be released in 2006. Weeks also recently mentioned, via their website, the likelihood of a Dicer 3 and even more ambitiously, possibly expanding the project into an annual release.