ndrew Broder and Fog seem bound to pursue a certain level of eclecticism—so much so, that they’re doing something they’ve never done and going conventional. Well, sort of conventional. That’s a relative term when it comes to Fog. But after two albums of ambient turntablism mixed with a bit of obtuse psych-folk, Broder cleaned up the act for 2005’s 10th Avenue Freakout. He then went out and turned Fog from a one-man sample act into a real rock band, with real instrumentalists. Now recalling the Midwest psych-rock of the Flaming Lips, Broder’s suddenly live-band band and its new album, Ditherer, will kinda confound fans.
A far cry from the detached electronic noodlings of Broder’s 2000 self-titled debut, Ditherer busies itself with the eccentricities of rock and Americana. This, a product of Fog’s transformation into a three-piece band, gives us folky stabs like “Your Beef Is Mine” and melodic freak-outs like “Hallelujah Daddy.” Only on the climactic epic “On the Gallows” does Fog really sound like the Fog it once was, and even then their ten-minute, feedback-laden suite on mortality sounds more like a moody take on No Depression. At any rate, it’s quite removed from the familiar didactic rasp of MF Doom’s expressive urgings that opened Fog.
You might be tempted to criticize the absence of the tactile clamor of Fog’s early work, but the (relatively) conventional nature of Ditherer isn’t a strike against them. Broder has always played a knack for writing pleasing melodies and having a rich understanding of the nature of ambient sound, and that talent still comes through. The band might even be blithingly self-aware of the incongruity of their situation, much like the leading men of The Darjeeling Limited who play farcical spiritual tourists but never turn their story into an actual farce. Key to Fog’s success is Broder’s newfound ability to convey emotions via tangible human interactions (live instruments, plain vocals, rock clichés) as opposed to burying them under layers and layers of cold, processed sound.
What’s interesting is that on the album’s electronic press kit video (viewable on YouTube), Broder calls Ditherer their “debut album.” For this Fenders-and-drums incarnation, it certainly is a debut, but it’s also the newest chapter in a previously thriving Fog enterprise. Differing even from “Hummer” and the rest of 10th Avenue Freakout, Ditherer will likely break Fog into an entirely new demographic, but why is Andrew Broder running away from his oblique past?
Fellow Minnesotans Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker join Fog on the closing “What’s Up Freaks?”, lending their recognizable harmonies to Broder’s vocals. It seems that Fog’s evolution is starting to have some parallels with Sparhawk and Parker’s band, Low. The former slowcore pioneers jettisoned their terminal dirge for a noisy, Dave Fridmann-produced effort in 2005’s The Great Destroyer, then went in a completely different direction with their brooding magnum opus, this year’s Drums and Guns. Broder has taken the first step in that progression by hiring a full band and releasing Ditherer. It would be more comforting to know whether this well-played paean to convention is more a move of quiet confidence than one of aimless eclecticism. As it is, this record goes down really well on its own.