“It is the loneliest record that I’ve ever made,” Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox told SPIN magazine recently about “Parallax,” the latest album from his solo project Atlas Sound. A few days after the publication of the interview, Cox was at Skidmore College to perform as Atlas Sound at the Arthur Zankel Music Center in Saratoga Springs.
And yes, Cox looked quite alone when he appeared onstage in the college’s pristine new performing arts theater with just an acoustic guitar, a harmonica and an effects board at his feet – an impression amplified by the vastness of the stage, the purplish lighting and the abandoned drum kit sitting unused behind him.
It could sound like a recipe for navel-gazing, but Cox isn’t your typical broken-hearted indie singer-songwriter. He’s written before about his extended stays in children’s hospitals for complications related to Marfan syndrome, and Cox has a rather unique ability to convey mortality and pain through the lens of childhood.
His subject material can be harrowing and personal but in an interesting, oftentimes playful, Edward Gorey-meets-Lynda Barry adolescent-macabre type way. And musically, Cox knows how to write a pure pop song – one that can obliterate the bleakness of any lyric with the uplift of a pleasing melody.
In Deerhunter, his melodies are often washed over with layers of shoe-gazing guitar, but in Atlas Sound they can be more upfront – although still offset by lots of quirky, otherworldly elements, as they were at the Skidmore show.
On “Amplifiers,” a memorable new song from “Parallax,” his vocals looped over an orchestral-sounding backing track. The melody line of the trippy “Te Amo” was carried by what sounded like a child’s toy organ. And on “Modern Aquatic Nightsongs,” his whispered “cold, cold, cold” lyrics were accented by the sound of a howling wind.
The superbly catchy “Mona Lisa” was pop-hit-worthy to be sure, before Cox chanted its intense “your baby’s sleeping, sleeping” lyrics – and then it just got pleasantly weird. He followed it with another of his best songs, the beguiling “Sheila,” which has a pop hook any band would envy – and a set of spooky lyrics about lovers who bury themselves so they can die together.
Two gorgeous numbers from “Parallax” – the holy-ghost-referencing “Terra Incognita” and the mood-driven “Flagstaff” – closed the set as Cox left the stage in a squall of feedback. He returned for one song to quietly wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving before playing the intimate “Attic Lights.”
Skidmore alum – but more recent Brooklyn resident Laura Stevenson – opened with her group the Cans. Compared to the austerity of Atlas Sounds’ set, they filled the stage with drums, guitars and, interestingly, an accordion player for amiable songs and stage patter about 20-something post-grad life. At their best, they reached back to the not-so-distant indie-rock past on a prettier, less gruff version of Archers of Loafs’ ’90s indie classic, “Web in Front.”
Review and photographs by Kirsten Ferguson
Josh Potter’s review at Metroland
ATLAS SOUND SET LIST
Modern Aquatic Nightsongs
Angel Is Broken