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The Dodos - Certainty Waves Music Album Reviews

After their longest break in a decade, the acoustic-and-drums duo return with hopes of reorienting their singular sound through the help of more electronics.

After a three-year absence, the Dodos singer and guitarist Meric Long has now released two albums in 2018. But the solo project where he swapped acoustic guitars for his late father’s synthesizers is, somehow, not what he calls his “midlife-crisis record.” Instead, that is Certainty Waves, the Dodos’ seventh album. Before Certainty Waves, Long’s midlife crisis was actually having no new record at all. The Dodos took their longest break in a decade after 2015’s Individ and became true 30-somethings almost instantly—day jobs, marriage, fatherhood, getting really into electronic music. Though the usually prolific Long had plenty of ideas for a new Dodos record, he had no unifying direction or theme until the duo revisited their breakthrough second album, 2008’s Visiter, for a 10th-anniversary gig. Like most modern folks suffering through a midlife crisis, he found both solace and inspiration in a younger version of himself that wasn’t so self-actualized but wasn’t subject to so many expectations, either.

This time, the Dodos set out to challenge their stereotype as that acoustic-and-drums duo, so apologies to anyone expecting a new “Fools.” They’re not completely ditching that configuration or simply giving the electronic experiments from Long’s overlooked solo album, Barton’s Den, the second chance of a more familiar setting. At Certainty Waves’ best, the Dodos find new ground between those two poles by thrashing on organic instruments that imitate electro analogs like samplers, drum pads, and keytars. The guitars on “Forum” replicate strings and horns, maximalist signifiers that are otherwise unavailable to a hard-touring minimalist duo. “IF” invokes metal through proggy seizures and Long’s ability to conjure both a saxophone and aluminum siding with his guitar. While Long has previously used loops to mesmerize, he exploits the minute gaps and flaws inherent in the looping process, turning split-second disruptions on “Coughing” and “SW3” into surprising hooks.

But this focus on sound manipulation and contrary motion ends up reinforcing the fussiness that has increasingly tempered the Dodos, even at their most explosive. Midway through the oceanic crest of “SW3,” drummer Logan Kroeber suddenly switches the beat and can’t stop toying with it; it’s interesting if you like counting competing mixed meters, but it needlessly distracts from the biggest chorus here. Certainty Waves stalls thereafter: filled with interesting tones and nifty rhythmic tricks, the album’s second half reflects Long’s period of writer’s block, effectively becoming the longest stretch of any Dodos album without a memorable melody.

Long’s mild-mannered vocals and Kroeber’s jittery rhythms are a constant, so everything remains immediately identifiable as the Dodos despite the synthetic textures interwoven into these nine songs. Ever since Visiter, they’ve absorbed shocks to the system again and again but remained steadfast. The sudden death of Women guitarist and temporary bandmate Chris Reimer informed the muted Carrier, while Long attributes the crackling urgency of Individ to the death of his father. Still, Visiter stands out within their consistently enjoyable catalog for being the least consistent and most surprising—an unalloyed mix of timely African polyrhythms and freak-folk wooliness, bowl-passing ruminations on the existence of God and one-minute shrugs about getting dumped.

Of course, the Dodos could no more replicate the innocent thrills of Visiter than they could will indie rock’s return to a time when nearly all buzz traced to Animal Collective. But Certainty Waves is most rewarding in the rare times it accesses the same plaintive directness that allowed them to risk looking silly on charming trifles like “Park Song” or “Undeclared.” “Now I forget all of the things I tried to remember” would be an accurate assessment of Long’s uneasy relationship with the Dodos’ past if it didn’t show up on “Center Of,” the truest Visiter throwback here—just a casually strummed acoustic guitar, a couple of chirping loops, and a rush of mounting drums, leaving nothing to obscure the light of Long’s soul-searching.

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