Ocean Shores – Luminous Romance

Illuminated Paths (IP-382), 2017

Sliding between genre borders, Luminous Romance from Ocean Shores is a wondrous and intriguing piece of work. Buried under lo-fi static like the best mallsoft, defined by simple looped retro-plunderphonic melody, and versatile enough to dwell in the background or as primary audio, it’s an album that shows a marked evolution from earlier releases.

As its name implies, Ocean Shores aims at capturing the relaxing sound of beach-music ambience. Most tracks feature a guitar or horn melody that drifts through loops with airy ease; some of these tunes may be recognizable as instrumental easy-listening versions of pop songs, but with Luminous Romance, Ocean Shores has either nabbed from the fringes of obscurity, or is now using original compositions. I suspect the latter. Gone, too, are the well-used “weather channel” samples and broken transmission structure; it’s now mostly about the music alone.

Mostly. One of the techniques that Ocean Shores has used is manipulation of static; at unanticipated intervals, the music will become even more drowned and fuzzy than it usually does. This effect plays a couple of important roles. First, it adds a layer of drama that keeps one’s ear guessing. More impressively, it creates a sense of place: the changes could be caused by an old-school radio losing its signal, or by the natural distortion of the listener diving underwater, whether the radio is poolside, at the edge of the beach, or on the deck of a boat drifting lazily in the shallows. It’s much more organic now, and as a result, more effective.

“Return” is vintage Ocean Shores, enhanced and refined, with a perfectly timed break and guitar chords that don’t stick to your brain quite enough, bearing you along the gauzy summer afternoon. “Not Enough Time in the World” starts hesitantly, as if the radio is searching for a clear signal, then locks in, the saxophone capturing timeless connection and possibility – this is a luminous romance after all. The wonderfully loungey “Perfume and Cigarettes” perfectly illustrates the unknown potential of new romance, while the repeating (and irresistible) melody would appear to hint that the whole thing is ephemeral, despite its initial allure. Similarly, the flamenco-style string-plucks of “Meaningless” are a nod to the joys of the superficial, and the links to intentionally soporific mallsoft are impossible to ignore. Well played, Ocean Shores.

Luminous Romance ventures beyond the gauzy sands and waters, however. The album’s second half delves into the experimental. The bittersweet synths of “Window of Opportunity” carry a tinge of regret – one of the first times Ocean Shores has let it slip – while the loops retain the mallsoft connection. “Patience” is its atmospheric cousin, with light congos and airy keyboards wavering with a touch of shadow. The metaphorical sunset continues with the chimes of “Closing Time,” as beautiful as they are melancholic, before the downtempo guitar of “There is No Escape” sadly watches the vestiges of light shimmer on the shrinking waves.

Luminous Romance can surely be labeled idealistic – a large part of the attraction – but there’s a retro kitsch that makes the whole thing just a tiny bit insincere, and endearingly so. Is nostalgia’s hold as strong when you know it’s nostalgia? I, for one, am unsure. I’m far more certain, however, that Ocean Shores is a sneakily talented assembler of vibe, with just a bit of commentary gliding beneath the glossy surface. Come to Luminous Romance for the bright melody, sun-soaked atmosphere, and radio-broadcast audio trickery, but stay for the passing hints of buried meaning.

Western Digital – Wasted Digital

Fantasy Deluxe, 2016

Imagine that it’s the middle of the night. You can’t sleep, and you wander the halls of your apartment building. The blue glow of a television flickers underneath the closed doors of the other units, and if you pause, you might be able to hear snatches of late-night programming: muffled voices, looping jingles of channels that have gone off the air, wisps of infomercials and 24-hour weather channels. Snippets of broadcast culture. As you stand there in the dim corridor, you might feel a sense of displacement, and perhaps a slight hint of voyeurism. Perhaps the inhabitants are sleeping, basking in the light of the screen. Maybe, you begin to think, you could go back to your own apartment, tune in, and fall asleep just like them.

Western Digital has captured this strange televised half-aware concept on the album Wasted Digital. It’s a clever title, for the bits and pieces are broadcasted detritus, throwaway passages intended to fill the late-night void. And yet, as Western Digital so deftly shows, there are moments of emotion and beauty to be experienced, in the sunless hours of the deep night. Maybe you’ve awakened to a screen of static, or some unanticipated and partly haunting program; it causes a unique feeling of soporific disorientation.

This begs the question: why would you want to listen to an album of such randomly assembled pieces? Some of the music is beautiful. The lonely Western guitar of “Hard Drive Haze” and the stirring horn and bass of “What Will Tomorrow Bring?” are sure to create an emotional connection. The collection of sampled melodies, using a variety of instruments, are merged with original electronics into a collage of static-drowned phantom music that drifts and floats like disembodied ghosts. Adding a level of humanity and immediacy is a series of sampled voices, sourced from news broadcasts, self-help infomercials, and obscure films. The fusion of these elements results in a deeply effective ambient atmosphere that mashes up the subgenres of vaporwave, plunderphonics, lofi, broken transmission, and even mallsoft (the track “Ghosts in the Plaza Mist” is as good an example of this as any you’ll hear) into a unique and profoundly evocative and memorable album.

Western Digital has done something rare. In a peek at how the project was able to create its sonic portrait, there’s a untreated version of the track “Broadcast Glow” called “Static Death” in which the buried audio filters have been removed, leaving the track’s core plain to hear. When compared with the finished version that begins Wasted Digital, the difference in technique is obvious. As a finishing touch, the final of the twenty-three tracks is the twelve-minute “Broken Transmission,” a long-form effort named for a peculiar subgenre that mimics channel-surfing through late-night TV channels, complete with beds of static separating each section as the channel is changed. This TV is an old analog vacuum tube with rabbit ears, to be sure. Anyone who’s ever watched TV at 2am in an insomniac haze will appreciate this track.

Wasted Digital isn’t just a curated and spliced procession of sampled commercials, although such albums do exist and can provide quite an effective listening experience. The creativity and skill with which Western Digital has pieced the album together elevates it into a strange and surreal realm of shadowed midnight rooms lit in shifting patterns from the screen, with muted audio leaking into the ether. It is both a critique of modern culture and an appreciation of it, and also allows the listeners the opportunity to drift quietly and silently through our media-soaked air, examining the curious and often comforting isolationism, along with the hypnotic effect of the irresistible siren call of the television screen. Cultural commentary, profoundly immersive ambiance, and engaging melodies that float aimlessly through your head like traces of digital clouds…..Western Digital has crafted one of the best albums to come out of the vaporwave movement. Plug in and check out.