In her song “Big Yellow Taxi,” Joni Mitchell pleads with farmers to stop using pesticides, crying, “I don't care about spots on my apples/but leave me the birds and the bees.” Now, I don't know if Dan Deacon grooves on the musical stylings of Joni Mitchell, nor have I read an interview with him in which he extols the virtues of farming in his post-industrial Baltimore neighborhood, but he did call his new album, Bromst, “organic.” Although the word “organic” is gaining ubiquity as America says penance at Whole Foods, he uses the term to describe creating music the natural way by using marimbas, xylophones, and glockenspiels alongside his characteristic MIDIs, foot pedals and broken Casio synthesizers. So, if the song “Wooody Wooodpecker” were the first song on Bromst instead of his previous album, Spiderman of the Rings, the looped-voice of everyone's favorite tree-awling bird might sound a little healthier and not so hyped-up on DDT. Hopefully, Joni Mitchell would be so pleased with Deacon and his band of animals that she would grab her dulcimer and join the chorus.
Knowing that Woody Woodpecker is a member of the aforementioned group, one might get the notion that it isn't a regular choir with Sopranos, Altos, Tenors and Basses. No, joining that chorus, I think, might be like joining a municipal choir in Toontown from the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit. There, the Sally-Jesse-Raphael bespectacled Deacon directs a group of cartoons and humans that sing side by side, oftentimes harmonizing over his loopy, densely layered compositions. On Spiderman, he first introduces the listener to his make-believe musical group. There are crystal cats, trippy green skulls, the ever-present group of singing chipmunks (Deacon's voice altered and multiplied) and a “sick band of goats and cats and pigs and bats that sing and sing” and romp around in a non-stop ecstatic celebration.
Sure, Deacon doesn't actually refer to the strange beasts that he sings about as choir members like I do, but I can't help conjuring images of my old Saturday morning friends when I listen to his music. Additionally, Deacon's live performances do nothing to dispel my mind's invention. At his shows, throngs of neon-clad indie kids crowd around his jerry-rigged soundboard as he dances and sweats through his Tweety Bird T-shirt . The climax of his shows is often a song entitled, “Wham City,” a "national anthem" for the Baltimore-by-way-of-New York collective of artists who with Deacon put on live reenactments of Disney's Beauty and the Beast among other imaginative productions; they seem to be an animated bunch.
So, by that token, that same zany clan joins Deacon on Bromst— if only in my head. On the first song, “Build Voice,” that choir of creatures emerge slowly from their bizarre musical ether. At first there is a noticeable silence. Then, somewhere above the earth, a faint and distant chant builds. Slowly the voices get closer to the ground; their forms become recognizable: “Hello, my ghost, I'm here, I'm home, I hope you know about the long lazy road.” Suddenly, their bodies hit solid ground and Deacon's instruments—including a MIDI-controlled player piano that hits notes faster than humanly possible— populate the soundscape in one creative burst. The singing critters seemingly scamper, jump and twirl across the land and seas at tempos of 120 beats per minute, inviting the listener to come along on their journey and witness their fecundity.
For the rest of the album, Deacon and those of his ilk discover what it means to be citizens in the land of Bromst. The characters experience pain and joy, hardships and triumphs as they explore the their new territory. To create that sense of voyage and discovery, like in the songs “Of the Mountains” and “Slow With Horns/Run for Your Life,” Deacon smartly employs crescendo, decrescendo and a host of other classical compositional methods—tricks he probably learned while receiving his Masters in electro-acoustic composition from SUNY Purchase. Each song is painstakingly constructed; each electronic whir and blip has purpose and each horn creates aural valleys and peaks. But of course, it's got that dance sensibility.
The best song to showcase Deacon’s orchestration abilities is the eight-minute saga, “Snookered.” Like any good rock epic, there are multiple movements. First, Deacon’s singing companions are climbing an unconquerable, metaphoric mountain, and their once boundless mirth has lessened. They sing, “Been wrong so many times before, but never quite like this” as glockenspiels simulate a slow rain. Overtime, though, their confessional mantra gives strength enough to trudge along to the precipice as the tempo quickens. And then, release: the song breaks down into cathartic, stuttered chants that seem to tell of newfound joy in overcoming misfortune—together.
Ultimately, what's engrossing about Bromst, is its understanding of actual community. It's a reminder that it is better to journey shoulder-to-shoulder, rather than alone. Sure, the music is completely naïve and childish, but therein lies its wisdom and maturity. It is not blind joy that Deacon composes, but one that knows hardship and still sings. His ability to expertly craft songs while maintaining his mischievousness and energy is what makes Bromst great. Granted, trekking through densely layered electronic orchestrations with chipmunk choirs is an unconventional route to those ends, but it is a fun one. Besides, the “organic” timbre of the album beautifully translates the message of Bromst into familiar tones for those of us that aren’t animations.