The Social Registry
he reviewer finds himself in a curious position. On the one hand, the record under study—a compilation of the singles and castoffs of NYC quartet Psychic Ills—is unspectacular, a loose flotilla of sonic driftwood on only occasionally hypnotic seas. On the other, Psychic Ills' debut full-length Dins is better, if still not consistently arresting, and the look Early Violence affords into the apprenticeship of a journeyman band is enlightening, promising, even inspiring.
So the reviewer is faced with a quandary: is Early Violence boring, with its overstretched riffs and murky turgidity? Or is it exciting, with its flashes of inspiration and groove and its already-fulfilled promise of better things?
The Psychic Ills of Early Violence are more preoccupied with drone than those of Dins, sending their lazy rhythms loping through fog thicker than that shrouding their full-length. "Diamond City" takes its time introducing us to a fastidious stutter before pairing it with its wah-wah dance partner and sending the couple pirouetting into murk; "4AM" is six minutes of sonic highway-watching, a bassline and the simplest possible glitch-beat the only anchors as riff after abortive riff wanders by. These tracks have charm, but too much of Early Violence runs on insistent autopilot, its scattered electric whooshes no more dynamic than its lockstep riffing. Compare this record's longer songs to their cousins on Dins: the eight-minute "I Knew My Name" scrambles to a climax where "4AM" conks out in a mess of scraping; "Another Day Another Night" invests its haze with a delicately triumphant pulse where "Days" takes the same few determined steps for seven unmoving minutes. There's a lot of missed potential here, as if the band weren't sure what they could reasonably accomplish.
But the promise of this record isn't just that it's been improved upon, but the manner of those improvements. Psychic Ills didn’t undergo a revolution between these early songs and their debut. There's no ostentatious stylistic shift; no naked growth spurt to wonder at in end-of-year features. The differences between Early Violence and Dins are subtle and sustainable: the differences between a band that listens to MBV and a band that listens to itself. Listen to the records side-by-side and notice the full-length's accentuation of Brian Tamberello's once-buried drums, or its greater willingness to ride rigidity into jamminess and out again. The earlier songs are the sound of musicians learning what they sound like, an essential step too often skipped, and the best moments on Dins come directly from the application of that knowledge. Psychic Ills are better when they jam occasionally; they're better when they give the rhythm section its due; they're better when they allow some space between the peaks on the oscilloscope; well, now they know.
Thus the quandary: is this a good record? No, not really. Nor is the record it leads to a triumph. But perhaps in our lust for prodigies we not only immolate the conspicuous with hysterical praise but freeze the promising with none. There's more honest and important artistic development between these two albums than between the first two phases of a dozen ballyhooed careers I could name, and listening to them made me happier about the craft of music than I've been in a while. If you think that's worth paying for, you know where to find it.