all words: Andy Johnson, all photos: Farrah Skeiky
The impact of the recession on our generation has been profiled to death. I don’t need to tell you that things are bad, you already know. How many of your friends moved home after graduating? Probably quite a few. They always have a reason to justify their domestic situation: “The economy is tough right now,” “I’m looking for the perfect place at the perfect price,” “I’m saving up money for my own place,” “Hey, I like living at home.” These excuses are all valid. If you don’t have a job and no one is hiring, what else are you going to do but rely on your parent’s fortune for a little while longer.
Like many of us, Ernest Greene finished college without getting a job. He tried the law school route, eventually dropping out to pursue a Master of Library and Information Science at the University of South Carolina. After racking up more student debt, Greene was still unable to get hired. With no other options, he moved back to his parent’s house in Perry, Georgia, two hours south of Atlanta. Twenty-six-years-young and with a useless Master’s degree, Greene spent his mornings and afternoons checking for job ads and writing/recording ambient-via-hip-hop tracks in his bedroom studio at night.
After a few music blogs stumbled across his MySpace profile, Greene’s “Washed Out” project grew by word-of-mouth. Tastemakers loved his breezy, laid-back production. Many of his tracks appeared on Best of Summer 2009 mixtapes. Brooklyn’s Mexican Summer label agreed to put out his first EP. His second-ever show was profiled in the New York Times, five days prior to his wedding. He graduated in May, recorded the songs in July, and by September he was already featured on Pitchfork as a “rising star.”As of 2009, he planned to enjoy his 15 minutes of fame, but said he “stills look forward to a long career as a librarian.”
Unfortunately for Greene, his dream of being a document scientist was put on hold after seminal Seattle label Sub Pop agreed to finance his debut album Within and Without. While I bet Greene would love to sit at home reading books with his lovely wife in rural Georgia, he’ll just have to tough it out, playing for hundreds of adoring fans each night on a national tour while critics fawn over his latest release.
Opening the sold out show was Washed Out’s Sub Pop labelmates, Canadian duo Memoryhouse. The group was conceived as an art project by photographer/singer Denise Nouvion and music school grad Evan Abeele. Their partnership eventually evolved into a fully-realized band (accompanied with a touring drummer). Nouvion’s photographic skills were on display this evening: a screen behind the group rotated through her ambient imagery. However, none of the images were of any lasting interest, unless clips of bubbling water, a swirling black vortex, and zooming and panning around a female marble statue reverberate in your subconscious.
Their admiration for My Bloody Valentine was obvious—they covered “When You Sleep”—but whereas MBV drenched listeners with layers of sound, Memoryhouse cuts through the haze with Abeele’s crystal-clear guitarwork. Memoryhouse’s major flaw is that Nouvion isn’t that great of a singer. Within the confines of the shoegaze genre, a band can disguise a lousy vocalist under a fury of reverb and feedback. By highlighting her flat vocals instead of burying them in the maximum swell of Abeele’s furious playing, they stressed their least desirable trait.
They seemed excited for their first show in DC, playing a 45-minute set with songs from their debut LP The Slideshow Effect and a few songs off 2011’s The Years EP. The atmosphere of the set was cautious as Abeele’s fretwork intermingled with Nouvion’s meowing. A standout was the melancholy “All Our Wonder,” which sounded like a junior varsity version of “Take Care,” a much better song by a much better male-female duo: Beach House. Of course Memoryhouse isn’t as good as MBV or Beach House, but considering it took the latter a few albums to crystallize their sound into something interesting, I’ll cut the young band some slack. At least they know the right bands to idolize.
Greene’s music has been categorized as “chillwave,” a subgrene of electronic music made by usually solo artists on laptops, focusing on bouncy, easily-produced synthpop rooted in the style of 1980s new wave artists. New York Times music reviewer Jon Pareles called it “recession-era music: low-budget and danceable.” According to that definition, yes, Washed Out was once a definitive chillwave artist. But with fame came a big check from Sub Pop and Greene was expected to come up with something better than a boyish guy with shaggy, frat star hair (Greene is a Southern boy, after all) plugging away on a Macbook and some pedals while murmuring over his productions.
There was nothing low-budget about this performance. The solo “bedroom artist” hit the stage at 10 p.m. dressed in a white button shirt, with a drummer, a bassist/keyboardist, and his wife, who provided backup vocals and provided much of the synthesizer work when Greene sang. Five industrial lights provided the backdrop for the night, illuminating the darkened Black Cat with a kaleidoscope of colors.
The set was heavy on Within and Without and 2009’s breakthrough EP Life Of Leisure. Unlike Memoryhouse, whose vocals were far too prominent, I could barely hear Greene sing during the first few songs, spurring one drunken patriot to continuously shout “We can’t hear you!” until the sound issues were resolved. Ignoring the vocal troubles, Washed Out’s sound was lush, even colossal at times. Within and Without tracks were written with the intention to be played live and it showed. “Echoes” oozed synths over the audience and the bassline of “Soft” was anything but, getting the lethargic crowd swerving.
The most surprising songs were his reworking of his earlier tracks, ones that were designed with headphones in mind. Greene encouraged the crowd to sing-a-long to a playful version of “New Theory” and the 8-bit Tetris-plunk of Life Of Leisure hit “You’ll See It” was replaced with a spacey 70’s synthesizer swirl that was indebted to ‘70s prog-rockers. “Feel It All Around” was completely warped, transmuting the Portlandia theme from a glossy, stoned slice of suburbia to a more sullen entity. (The girl behind me did not enjoy this rendition. I guess some people aren’t comfortable with their favorite TV themes being fucked with).
The set-closing “Amor Fati” was the most massive song of the evening, striking a balance between Greene’s delicate, slurred vocals and cascading, New Order-inspired melodies. The encore featured a mutated version of “Hold Out” with a greater emphasis on a driving 4/4 beat and closed the night with single “Eyes Be Closed”, blanketing the crowd with mellow synths, hollow percussion and his signature drowned-out lyrics.
I read an article last year that described chillwave as an “economic phenomenon.” The author writes, “Five or ten years ago, every other twentysomething band wasn’t making hazy, woozy, droney, ‘womblike’ music. There was no band called Baths and no crop of hundreds of projects that sound like Washed Out, but suddenly, since 2009, there are multiple micro-movements that sound like nosedives back into the uterus, ‘amniotic’, maybe because the world has gotten too hopeless and terrifying to handle.” If music signals the times, his idea holds water. The music of ‘70s came from the anti-war movement and ‘90s grunge was filled with post-Reagan angst. One can even question if the entire chillwave subgenre could even exist if the economy didn’t shit the bed. To think that someone with Greene’s talent could have wasted his life stuck in the stacks! Greene may not have found a job, but at least he’s secured a career.
ALSO: Almost all of Memoryhouse’s gear was stolen from their van when they were in DC. If you know anything about it-let us know.