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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Deaf Wish - Lithium Zion Music Album Reviews

The Melbourne quartet’s fifth album doesn’t counteract any Sonic Youth comparisons, but it does conjure an alternate history where the rock formalism of Goo and Dirty became the band’s defining sound.

There’s a fine line between encouraging an intra-band democracy and having an identity crisis. As a four-piece with four singers, Melbourne’s Deaf Wish are liable to sound like four different bands. On their 2015 Sub Pop debut, Pain, they sought catharsis through any means necessary: clanging noise brutalism, hoarse-throat hardcore, frazzled indie rock, distortion-soaked psych. But it was one of those albums that sounded like the band was getting its shit together in real time. Once you got through Pain’s scatterbrained first side, you could sense Deaf Wish learning to let their melancholy melodies lead the way, with singer-guitarists Jensen Tjhung and Sarah Hardiman settling into a familiar Thurston/Kim dynamic.

Lithium Zion, their second Sub Pop album and fifth overall, picks up right where they left off—though not without some shake-ups along the way. After a decade of bashing out makeshift-space recordings, the band graduated to a proper studio, with Total Control’s Mikey Young overseeing the mixes. They also bid adieu to bassist Nick Pratt, the member responsible for their fiercest circle-pit stompers. But if Deaf Wish are still very much fueled by a love for frayed-nerve noise, there’s a consistency of vision here that distinguishes Lithium Zion from the band’s caterwauling back catalog. That evolution is apparent in the band’s choice of opening tracks. On Pain, you were instantly confronted by the impenetrable post-punk of “The Whip,” a song that climaxes with the sort of hammering assault that can make you see stars. But with “Easy,” on Lithium Zion, Deaf Wish make the initiation process, well, easy, by hitching their churning guitars to a cascading, “Tomorrow Never Knows”-style drum beat, striking a perfect balance between dissonance and groove. Hardiman’s “FFS” follows, with two exhilarating minutes of restless agitation and revved-up noise-punk that demonstrate the greater focus in effect.

Alas, the specter of Sonic Youth is impossible to avoid in these songs. But the album doesn’t mimic Deaf Wish’s spiritual forebears so much as it imagines an alternate history for them, one where the rock formalism of Goo and Dirty became the band’s defining characteristic, rather than a blip in their sprawling discography. (Not only is Lithium Zion’s title track an asphalt-ripping instrumental like Goo’s “Mildred Pierce,” it’s even slotted in a similar side-two position.) Yet there’s an absurdist sensibility at play here that rarely cut through Sonic Youth’s ultra-cool veneer: The needling mid-tempo rumbler “The Rat Is Back” finds Tjhung curling up with his cat to fend off an invasive rodent; “Hitachi Jackhammer” opens with Tjhung and Hardiman reciting ad copy for the titular product, before unleashing a juddering punk squall that conjures its operational qualities.

But more than just harnessing the band’s unbridled energy into tightly coiled rockers, Lithium Zion displays a greater willingness to play Deaf Wish’s singers off one another, projecting a deeper sense of camaraderie. Like Pratt before him, new bassist Lee Parker serves as a caustic counterpoint to Tjhung and Hardiman’s disaffected sneers, but his sensibility meshes more naturally with theirs. On “Deep Blue Cheated,” Parker transforms the band into an evil twin to fellow Melburnians Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, until the song’s hyper locomotive thrust is cooled by Hardiman’s soothing counter-melody, a trick she deploys throughout the record.

As Lithium Zion confirms, the story of Deaf Wish’s evolution is very much the story of Hardiman’s own. Her increasingly versatile vocals have brought greater emotional depth to their music, from the haunting spoken-word passage that interrupts the PJ Harvey-esque “Afraid for You” or her sad-eyed duet with drummer Daniel Twomey on careening closer “Smoke.” And the swooning “Birthday,” a shot of Brill Building-via-Knitting Factory melodic discord, counts as the most affecting pop song in the band’s canon to date. Deaf Wish may still be suckers for hair-raising noise, but the real thrills on Lithium Zion come when they embrace nuance.

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