The following is a guest post written by Davy Jones. Read more of his work at You Hear That.
During my father’s 20-plus years as a professor at Virginia Wesleyan College, he was officially stationed in the Political Science department, but at every opportunity, he incorporated film into his classes. He loved movies, and in an attempt to land my own apple closer to that tree, I took a few undergraduate film courses. I enjoyed them a great deal, thanks in no small part to an awesome professor who went to Harvard at the same time as Matt Damon and introduced me to the idea that Damon had a genius complex. (Good Will Hunting, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ocean’s 11 — this still cracks me up, despite the clear knack for self-effacing humor Damon has exhibited via Jimmy Kimmel’s “Apologies to Matt Damon” running joke.)
One of the other things she introduced me to, though it’s only now that I’m realizing it, is the notion of an aesthetic. Before those classes, a movie was as good as its entertainment value, and black and white movies barely registered on that scale. But I can remember as clear as day being introduced to German expressionism via The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. As the DVD played on a projection screen in the University of Richmond’s Media Resource Center, Dr. Cheever pointed out how the brutally angular shadows and stark contrast between light and dark represented a specific movement within art and culture, and for the first time, I saw that picking apart a movie’s cinematography and mise-en-scène could be fun.
Fast forward to a couple weeks ago, when Dead Fame’s new EP, Vicious Design, was released to vinyl. Steady Sounds posted a picture to Tumblr showing that they’d gotten copies in, and within the half hour, I’d picked mine off the wall. In the time that I’ve spent with it since, two things have become clear. First, that Dead Fame — a band that’s always been extraordinarily tight, both in terms of style and execution — is getting even tighter. “Vicious Design” shows mountains of forethought, resulting in an album that boasts plenty of energy while giving those of us who enjoy chewing the analytical fat lots to digest. It’s so much more fun to find connections and guess at decisions when you know that a band cares about how their work is experienced, and when I interviewed Dead Fame a few years back, it became clear that the quintet works with great deliberation, like each move is made with an eye to posterity. They’re dedicated students of the music they love and create, and we all benefit.
The other thing that’s become clear in the past few weeks is how effectively Dead Fame embodies the aesthetic that made me fall in love with aesthetics in the first place — German expressionism.
Linking a band that wears influences like Bauhaus and New Order on their Facebook-About-page sleeve to expressionism — representing an emotional or personal reality in lieu of an objective one — isn’t exactly going out on a limb. There’s a built-in relationship there, one that runs as deep as New Wave’s overtly emotional lyrics and as shallow as wearing black clothes. But what sets Dead Fame apart is the same thing that made the The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari so brilliant: Darkness is only half the equation, because darkness is most striking when juxtaposed with light.
All throughout Vicious Design, you find contradictions brimming with creative friction. Michael Means sings about knives and fire in a bold, menacing baritone, but his notes are far from morose, as he employs a lively, quick-hitting style that rarely extends beyond a half note. (The lyrics on “Lift” about throwing punches couldn’t be more fitting.) He keeps you on your toes, proving the perfect accompaniment for a band with beats as danceable as Dead Fame’s are.
If you’ve ever been to a Dead Fame show, you know how important that last bit is. Their shows are celebratory, Eric Klemen’s drums and Sadie Powers’ bass offering up driving, relentless rhythms, the kind you move with instinctively. That pervasiveness is on full display here, like on “Joan Crawford.” It’s fast, affecting — genuinely fun stuff. That said, maintaining the mood that their post-punk predecessors established (and that a song entitled “Joan Crawford” demands) is crucial to building dramatic tension, and the choices Powers makes to that end — avoiding the most obvious, safest-sounding notes — evince a real understanding of the psychology of music, like a melodic equivalent of Phil Lesh’s tendency to avoid the downbeat.
Chris DiNitto’s synths and KC Byrnes’ guitar bridge light and dark just as effectively. “My Body, My Fool,” which gets triple remix treatment on the EP’s B-side, is awash with big intervals that appear like lightning, from Byrnes’ staccato lead notes to DiNitto’s sudden, octave-spanning strikes. By placing low and high notes next to one another and side-stepping the chromatic progression in between, these wonderfully sharp, piercing shapes emerge, proving every bit as dramatic as the shadows that German expressionism is famous for. It’s uncanny.
As if that weren’t enough, you get to flip the record over and hear those pieces rearranged, club-ready in the case of Nightstalker’s remix, sideways and distant in Xiu Xiu’s and sparse and nimble in Double Dutchess’. It’s rare that you get to dig into a single song like this in a single release, and the true payoff comes when you flip Vicious Design back over and hear “My Body, My Fool” with fresh ears. It gets better every time that flip happens.
Shadows can’t exist without the sun, and Dead Fame seem to understand that in a way that few artists do. It’s all there on Vicious Design, assembled with great care and little middle ground, just as Dr. Caligari would have ordered.
Dead Fame will be releasing its new EP “Vicious Design” at Balliceaux on May 3 at 10 p.m.