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Lotus Plaza Hides Weak Songwriting Behind a Filter of Fuzz

Lotus Plaza -- Spooky Action at a Distance -- Kranky -- 1 1/2 STARS

Courtesy Kranky

Listening to Lotus Plaza’s new record, “Spooky Action at a Distance,” is like looking at a picture that has been put through a vintage Instagram filter on your pretentious friend’s Facebook. Sure, it’s pretty in that grainy and faded way that screams timelessness and authenticity, but does it reflect skilled photography? We associate graininess with authenticity because we automatically project authenticity on the past, and since photos inevitably fade with time, our only images of the past are grainy and faded. There’s nothing inherently authenticating about these visual qualities: behind the Instagram filter still stand boring, inauthentic people posing apathetically for badly composed photographs.

Similarly, behind all the layers of electronic fuzz and distorted guitars on Lotus Plaza’s new album lie dull songwriting and an unskilled, unadventurous musician who consistently confuses loudness with complexity. It may be a pretty album from time to time, but does it reflect skilled musicianship?

Lotus Plaza is the solo project of the Deerhunter guitarist Lockett Pundt, who must have inherited an inability to think up good names from his parents. Though indie band names these days typically range from alienating (Fucked Up) to exasperating (Animal Collective), Lotus Plaza reaches a new level of nominal atrocity. What is a “lotus plaza?” I’m guessing that Pundt took his initials, thought of the two most quote-unquote poetic words starting with these letters, and mashed them into a band name regardless of whether or not they cohered. News flash: they don’t.

After a throwaway ambient track, “Spooky Action” opens with its most compelling cut, “Strangers.” A soaring guitar vamp rides a sixteenth-note snare pattern from the outset, as Pundt’s disaffected croak tracks our maiden voyage: “You’re on your own / There’s no one else.” The opening of this track is an epic pinnacle of indie guitar rock, reminiscent of Deerhunter at its most expansive. But by the time we’ve reached the two-and-a-half minute mark, Pundt has repeated the same verse-chorus structure three times with little variation. As if he has tired of his own lack of creativity, Pundt gradually decelerates the tune’s tempo, ending in a deathly crawl. The heights of the first few minutes are never again reached on the album.

Instead, we get tunes like “Dusty Rhodes.” Here, a strolling tempo is repeatedly robbed of momentum by lazy acoustic guitar breaks. Like a teenager who just picked up his first guitar, Pundt seems convinced that a reductive, two-chord progression is something that everyone wants to hear ad nauseum. Hearing “Dusty Rhodes” next to the previous track, “Out of Touch,” deepens the monotony of Pundt’s theme-craft. A nearly identical melodic turn in each has us yearning for some innovation by the album’s midpoint.

One of Pundt’s biggest problems as a songwriter is his inability to adorn his songs with variations. As in “Strangers,” it’s as if Pundt were so enamored by his chord changes that he forgot that things happen in good songs. The album distinctly lacks bridges or solos: most tunes conclude with a lengthy repetition of the chord structure accompanied by growing fuzz or illegible noise. “Jet Out of the Tundra,” for instance, which begins with a moving groove that seems to pull us toward unknown horizons, ends in a mess of clashing layers and indistinct noise. As much as Pundt wants us to accept it as such, this is not development; it’s only volume.

Like the words “lotus plaza,” most of Pundt’s lyrics sound like he thought about them for the entirety of three seconds. Most songs revolve around the gaudily romantic theme of escape, whether from the ground in “Out of Touch” (“Wave goodbye and fly away”), the world in “Monoliths” (“Somewhere outside / And I wish I could be there”), or his body in “White Galactic One” (“Dancing ‘round my head / Floating ‘round my head). This already well tread territory is exacerbated by the repetition of trite, disconnected phrases that function only as lyrical placeholders. “I know / I know / I know,” he insists in “Strangers,” which is an odd refrain in a song ostensibly about people one doesn’t know. Fortunately, Pundt seems to recognize the weakness of his lyrics, as he frequently hides them behind filters and pea-soup reverb.

There’s nothing spooky about “Spooky Action at a Distance” just like there’s nothing spooky about artificially faded photos. There’s only fabricated distance: pull out the binoculars and Lockett Pundt is just another mediocre guitarist who doesn’t know how to write songs.

—Staff writer Patrick Lauppe can be reached plauppe@college.harvard.edu.

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