The challenge for chillwave artists in 2011 will be to expand their sound without abandoning the nostalgic spirit that made them so appealing in the first place. I expect the genre to shed its lesser adherents, those Washed Out wannabes who pound the same two or three chords on their Casio keyboards and expect continued recognition on The Hype Machine. Some will say that chillwave is over, but in truth it will simply be maturing beyond the clichéd adjectives so frequently ascribed to its music (“hypnagogic,” “nostalgic,” “hazy,” “half-remembered”).
If ever there were a good candidate to update chillwave, it would be Florida’s Mike Diaz. The biggest problem with his Be So True EP from early last year was its brevity; at just 17 minutes long, the five-track release tantalized listeners with solid songwriting and ethereal vocals indebted to (but not derivative of) Elizabeth Frazer’s unintelligible yet seductive singing for the Cocteau Twins.
MillionYoung’s debut LP, ill-advisedly titled Replicants, sounds like his previous work on steroids. The songs are longer, the instruments more varied, the beats less uniform. Most effectively, Diaz brandishes a heavily-reverbed electric guitar, coating tracks like “Cosmonaut” and “Synanthropic” in a psychedelic ooze that recalls the trippy aura of Sun Araw and Ducktails. “001” also features an electric guitar, but this time Diaz uses it in a garage-rock context; meanwhile, lead single “Carlissian,” potential single “Perfect Eyes,” and album closer “Synanthropic” use acoustic guitars to refreshingly organic effect.
Unfortunately, these moments of inspired guitar work don’t quite make up for the redundant melodies and formless songs that compose a disappointing chunk of the album. The Atari-disco “On On,” funky “Easy Now,” midtempo “Gravity Feels,” and waltz-like “Forerunner” all start promisingly but quickly turn boring; Diaz never develops these melodies into fully-fledged pop songs, choosing instead to repeat the same musical phrases and layer synth on top of monotonous synth. He stretches pleasant synth-draped moments into staticky approximations of ambient noise. Too many tracks here are beefed-up variations of the songs from Be So True and 2009’s Sundreamm, replacing their short-and-sweet charm with tedium.
The best songs here—“Carlissian,” the title track, “Perfect Eyes,” “001”—marry pop sensibilities with chillwave’s Vaseline virtuosity, but they are few and far between. “Tokyo 3” runs under a minute but ought to have been expanded, as it provides another intriguing possibility with backwards rhythm (think Missy Elliott’s “Work It”) and a haunting melody. The bulk of this album, however, consists of tracks that sound more like instrumental exercises than proper songs. “Gravity Feels” best summarizes this problem; its introductory rhythm is bouncy and nimble, with a laid-back bassline groove to carry it along. After two minutes, however, nothing’s really changed except for the addition of an occasional synth line that seems more like an afterthought than an integral element. It’s not until the song’s final minute (following an irritatingly loud breakdown) that something interesting happens, as Diaz sings over a guitar line that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Peter Bjorn and John’s Writer’s Block. But before this portion has time to develop, Diaz cuts it short, casting a clumsy, stilted shadow over the entire track.
Earlier, I said that Be So True was too short. As it turns out though, its brevity may have been a key to its success. It seems that when MillionYoung has more room to breathe, he suffocates on his own ideas. There’s a great EP’s worth of material hiding within Replicants, and I wish it had stayed that way.