ep review: the dunes, between midnight and dawn
To admit to a certain degree of bias at the outset of a review is the honourable course of action, correct? With that in mind, I’ve enjoyed a very contented relationship with dream pop since first hearing Mazzy Star’s ‘Fade Into You’ (1994), This Mortal Coil’s cover of Tim Buckley’s ‘Song to the Siren’ (1983) and Cowboy Junkies’ cover of The Velvet Underground’s ‘Sweet Jane’ (1988) many moons ago. Though these songs don’t necessarily sound identical, they do share certain stylistic elements and by virtue of their popularity and continued airplay have helped (amongst others) to popularise and shape the sound of the genre.
Which brings us to The Dunes. Ostensibly a two-piece (Texan ex-pat Stacie Reeves on vocals and Matt Reiner of Adelaide on guitars, piano and organ), the band has followed its initial single release of 2011, ‘Going Under’, with its debut EP, Between Midnight and Dawn. It’s a surprisingly dynamic group of songs – ‘dynamic’ being an atypical word-of-choice when one considers guitar-based dream pop. But these five songs have a vitality to them; vibrant not so much in sound but in arrangement and presentation.
Although Reeves’ vocals are understandably the focal point of these tracks (imagine Elizabeth Fraser crossed with Karen Carpenter and a more polished, gentle variant of Siouxsie Sioux), Reiner is The Dunes’ creative driving force. As principal songwriter, credit for the inventiveness of these compositions must go to him. Sure, there is a sonic model at work here – a template instantly recognisable to any listener who has had even a passing encounter with the genre. However, Reiner has enough song-writing-smarts to scatter these tracks with textures, moods and colours one wouldn’t expect to hear on a release pigeonholed, by the band itself, as dream pop.
There seems to be a deliberate effort made to challenge the listener to escalating degrees as the songs on Between Midnight and Dawn pass by. Opener ‘Trace the Sun’ is vintage mid-to-late period Mazzy Star; vocals dripping in thick, delicious reverb, simple percussive elements embellished with tambourine, a straightforward arrangement of acoustic rhythm guitar and subtle lead slide guitar, and a delivery that sounds oh-so-effortless. It’s a very pretty opener, if a touch unsurprising; ultimately a pleasant-enough introduction to a more formidable, more challenging group of songs.
Changing direction almost immediately, the aptly titled ‘Transition’ follows. It’s a theatrical five minutes. The differences in aural textures and arrangements between this and the preceding track are significant; it’s more complex, emotive, and somber. Potentially a great “band” track, it would be nice to hear with more clarity the layers of instrumentation – both the rhythm section and some skillful lead guitar playing are a little lost behind the vocals in a somewhat muddied mix. A pity.
The wistful, haunted ‘Bay Window’ exudes rainy-afternoon melancholy. Vocally it’s the EP’s strongest moment. In the great tradition of dream pop, Reeves’ voice at times on the release constitutes but a part of the overall soundscape under all that reverb dressing – but in this instance it gives the track its inertia, providing it with a confidence, a surety.
Between Midnight and Dawn‘s highlight comes in the form of the EP’s most challenging track, ‘Unfinished’. The listener cannot help but melt as Reeves’ vocals (unearthly and exquisite) diffuse through Reiner’s lead guitar. It’s blissful… but oh so dark. It’s this dichotomy which makes it the sort of track tailor-made for a David Lynch soundstage: a small-town bar, stage bathed in smokey, muted blue light, the music from the performers providing a soundtrack to some very strange, very tenebrous happenings. Quite extraordinary.
The psychedelic progressive folk of ‘Lunar Effect’ provides further proof that Reiner is prepared to experiment within the narrow confines of his chosen genre. An eight minute trip of a song, it’s one which gives the peripheral members of the band a chance to shine (Adam Vanderwerf on bass and Dan Fernie-Harper on drums). This time, the production is more friendly to the song’s constituents.
Dream pop has already had its sound established to such a degree that it’s tempting to (incorrectly) label The Dunes’ music as derivative, simply because much of it fits the “mold”. But, while it is true that the influences are obvious, Reiner’s willingness to toy with convention raises both the potential longevity of this release and its legitimacy as a genuine, artistic statement. There is certainly enough creativity and ingenuity at work here to make one excited for future releases from The Dunes.
‘Trace the Sun’ is available for streaming from the band’s SoundCloud page. The Dunes will be launching Between Midnight and Dawn with a gig at Adelaide’s Crown and Anchor Hotel on Saturday, September 8.