Pocahaunted's new album, Make It Real, needs to be cranked the way one would a killer dub joint, say Keith Hudson's Nuh Skin Up Dub or Wackie's Natures Dub:
Overdrive the bass, kill the treble.
For those unfamiliar with the splendor that is mind-rattling bass, this sounds excessive, I'm sure. Basically, you want the low-end — Diva Dompe's bass and the gooey organ of Cameron Stallones (who has since been replaced by Leyna Noel) — so loud it blossoms into a massive, rumbling vortex, around which every other sound/instrument is forced to orbit. This includes all manner of wobbly percussive clatter, skronk-sax, the six-string's metronomic melodicism and, of course, Amanda Brown's patent arsenal of echo-laden shrieks, yelps, moans, groans and howls.
"Before [Make It Real], none of us had ever thought about being in a band with really prominent bass," says Brown, talking via cell from her pad in L.A. (the Eagle Rock 'hood to be specific). "In both indie and drone, you don't really think about the bass. The bottom isn't always the most important thing. If we wrote parts that we couldn't dance to, then we ditched them. If we couldn't feel that vibe, then we stopped the part. So this is us being dance-y. This is what outsiders do when making dance music."
Pocahaunted hasn't been a full ensemble for too long. Likewise, they didn't always make, as Brown likes to define it, "outsider funk." The group's only constants, since its earliest cassettes and CD-Rs began seeping into underground noise and rock circles in 2006, are Brown and her myriad vocal manipulations. Back then the group consisted of just her and pal Bethany Cosentino. The duo, like a lot of young freakers wandering the outer fringes of sound over the last five to six years, began tinkering with extended, free-form-psychedelic drones: blurry, tribal-tinged incantations lovingly guarded in a nest of crackling feedback and distortion.
It was fun for a while, Brown admits, producing a clutch of transcendent recordings. But as she points out, the world of drone and noise, which is overrun almost exclusively with dudes obsessed with free improv and trippy head noise, is no long-term domicile for a woman who also harbors a love for funk, dub, afrobeat and monolithic bass that get asses moving.
An early harbinger of dissatisfaction came in the form of 2008's Island Diamonds, which consists of four extended tracks (all of them ripe for remixes). It wouldn't be inaccurate to frame the record as "Nyabingi noise twee" or some other cheeky-music-nerd phrase. It's still in the "drone zone," as my friend Bent Crayon jokingly calls it, but creeping into the murk's lower strata are dubby dance grooves Brown and Cosentino dipped in boiling water and twisted into a host of delicious shapes.
Brown, as a matter of fact, wasn't the only one growing restless. An incorrigible fan of the Beach Boys, the Ronettes and even Billy Joel, Cosentino relocated to New York City in autumn 2008. Re-christening herself Best Coast, she embraced her love of pure pop and has since garnered serious, uh, "indie buzz" for her hook-stained, lo-fi ear candy (think Wavves, Ariel Pink, No Age).
"The band basically ended," says Brown. "It took me a while to figure out what to do with the Pocahaunted name. So I asked the most elite friends I had to come together and start writing weird funk songs. It took a long time to get a new sound. We didn't release anything for a while. We just wrote, practiced and played shows."
Make It Real, released in March on Not Not Fun, the label she runs with her husband and bandmate Britt, is the end result of Brown's self-imposed cocoon stage. But unlike Cosentino's Best Coast project, Pocahaunted 2.0 isn't a resolute dismissal of the group's drone past, more like a subtle negotiation. It's a fantastic summertime soundtrack: catchy, quirky and fun. Plus, the production, an unwieldy wash of reverb, gels smoothly with humid nights and sticky tees.
Comparisons to the Slits are tempting, but the group's reckless moxie actually reminds me of Calvin Johnson's Dub Narcotic Sound System, who preached the gospel of dub to indie brats back in the mid 1990s; only Johnson never had a bassist as commanding as Dompe. Inventive patterns, fluid runs — she also lumbers like a woolly mammoth stoned on Percocet.
Not everything is snap-focus groove research, however. Eight-plus minutes of brutal mutant beauty, the track "UFO" (A nod to ESG?) swims in an avant-garde ecstasy reminiscent of old-school Pocahaunted. With Dompe maintaining the center, voice, organ, drums, sax and guitar drift out to sea, losing sight of shore and absolutely loving it. On "UFO" (and to a lesser extent "You Do Voo Doo") the outsider-to-funk ratio definitely swings in favor of the former.
Nearing the end of our talk, Brown talks about the ways in which Pocahaunted's new sound has affected its fan base. Though crowd reception isn't something she's terribly concerned with, Brown chews on it from time to time. As she sees it, they're currently trudging across the "muddy middle;" Make It Real is too dance-oriented for the noise/drone scene the group is gradually leaving behind, yet still too weird, sonically, for the indie-rock crowd. Recently, they opened for Vampire Weekend, with whom they share a love for afro-pop and afrobeat. The band's knack for making its young fans boogie blew her away, yet Brown ultimately believes, "We're not ever going to be grouped in with them, because they're so bouncy and clean."
I wholeheartedly concur. Not in a million years would a Vampire Weekend album ever inspire me to overdrive the bass and kill the treble. Those settings are reserved for heavy "riddims" only — like Make It Real.
Justin Farrar is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Village Voice, Seattle Weekly, Rhapsody.com and many other publications.
who: Pocahaunted, with Aswara opening
where: Harvest Records
when: Thursday, June 17 (9 p.m. $5. harvest-records.com)