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Buke and Gase - Scholars Music Album Reviews

On their first album in six years, the experimental pop duo (mostly) puts down their namesake instruments to fold more electronic elements into their potent songs.

Buke and Gase are often billed as an experimental pop act, a tag that has more to do with their inputs than their output. More than a decade ago, Arone Dyer and Aron Sanchez designed the instruments from which they take their name—a bass ukulele (Buke) and a guitar-bass hybrid (Gase). More recently, they've crafted “the Arx,” a multi-instrument electronic control system that sounds awesome and sounds awesome. Still, on Scholars, their third proper LP and first in almost six years, they sashay into a familiar lineage of deconstructed, bold pop alongside the likes of Dirty Projectors and Braids, bands folding ingenious electronic elements into potent, acoustic-centered songs. The pair built these dozen colossal tunes by jamming and chipping away at their most ecstatic improvisations until the most powerful snippets with the heaviest grooves remained. The result suggests a robotic chamber orchestra, soldered together by someone shielded in a helmet emblazoned with a Bananarama sticker, Hot 97 blaring from a nearby boombox.

Dyer enters the album with a sky-high lament, her voice rising through a web of droning chords: “I fall down on the weekend/I fall so many times on the weekend/Yeah, you couldn’t find a better friend than me,” prompting memories of younger days of inebriated abandon from a distant, more-calm vantage. It sure feels beautiful, though—especially the way the sun glints from every word hanging in the air. Like Imogen Heap, she routes the round through Auto-Tune, creating harmonies that chase her transfixing voice like an army of droids. The melodies are huge, unfurling as multi-colored banners in the sky. Dyer meanders through them like she’s lost, ultimately finding her way back home via unpredictable but meticulously plotted rhythmic and melodic routes.

“Scholars” itself sets up a Bizet-worthy aria before bending toward 1990s grunge, all smashed to bits under relentless drums. Dyer and Sanchez play all these tricky grooves with their feet, using kick drums, tambourines, snares, and other triggers like subway buskers; rather than a limitation, it’s a kind of formalist constraint, establishing the cohesive framework from which they build. It recalls the early work of Yeasayer (or, more generally, dance forms like disco) in that the percussion and songwriting feel mutualistic, so that one cannot exist without the other. The off-kilter beat of “Pink Boots” seems to have shaped Dyer’s very syllables.

Living somewhere between Animal Collective and the Dresden Dolls, Buke and Gase’s 2010 debut, Riposte, established them as an innovative outlier amid the blog-rock flotsam. In 2013, General Dome added more complex arrangements, astounding vocal lines, and some studio wizardry. Scholars ups even that ante, as Buke and Gase largely ditch their namesake instruments in favor of the Arx and other electronics, setting up a transfixing contrast between synthetic and acoustic sounds, all led by Dyer’s skywriting voice. The production here snaps with the clarity and force of stadium-sized headbangers while maintaining the intimacy of Buke and Gase’s earlier work. It’s as if stints opening for the likes of the National and Battles challenged Buke and Gase to consider their sound in larger spaces without losing their fascinating edge.

Dyer manages space so well with her voice on “Derby” that the track sounds like a lost Sneaker Pimps single. There are shades of Frank Ocean’s Blonde, as when “Temporary” flosses an ode to New York through a vocoder and over a bouncy riff. “Wrong Side” wrangles the hard-knocking inflections of Björk’s Volta, while “Eternity” simultaneously recalls the insouciance of Tom Waits and the global rhythmic explorations of Yonatan Gat. Even in their extended absence, Buke and Gase have exemplified the ethos of self-determined musicians, songwriters, and sonic explorers, looking for ways to warp and refine an idiosyncratic craft. With an eye toward the innovations of contemporaries working in similar modes, Scholars exists on its own proud terms—suggesting the authority of a peer-reviewed entry to the canon.

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