Sometimes you’ve got to wonder why bands label-hop. Why’d Low leave Kranky for Sub Pop, or Polvo trade Merge for Touch and Go? In the case of Emeralds, putting out music on multiple labels makes sense, since they produce and release so much material. So moving from one label to another isn’t such a dramatic deal for them, but their recent move is instructive of the direction their music has moved. Their last widely available release, What Happened, came out on the experimental noise label No Fun whereas the new one, Does It Look Like I’m Here? is out on experimental electronic label Mego Editions. The former fit well with its No Fun labelmates, fairly formless and stretched out, with a lot of buzz and fizzle. The switch to Mego comes along with what sounds to be a switch from analog to digital gear, and a proclivity for microsounds and metered progress heretofore unexplored by the band, not to mention much shorter track lengths.
Unfortunately, the short form doesn’t work that well for Emeralds over the length of the album, though the individual pieces are sometimes mesmerizing. The album leads off with “Candy Shoppe” which wows with its patience and use of space, building from a spare music box melody to dizzying depths in the span of 5 minutes. Most tracks here build in intensity over the course of 3 to 5 minutes into dense webs of arpeggiated momentum, but then drop off the scene quickly, only to start the process right over again. As a listener it feels like the process of trying to blow up a balloon, but then losing your grip as you try to tie it, and then seeing it fly across the room as it deflates, over and over again.
In the middle of the album come two long form pieces. These are a good idea, as it seems that Emeralds aren’t allowing themselves enough time to develop a piece and still have time to end it. Still, from an album perspective, they seem out of place among the shorter tracks, like the guys just couldn’t control themselves and had to shoot for the stars a few times. On “Genetic” Mark McGuire’s guitar is starting to show the faintest whiffs of staleness, recycling the same triumphantly mysterious riffs we’ve been hearing from him for a while now, and next to the new textures the other guys have brought to the table, it’s disappointing to hear the wheels spinning. Even as the music is moving, mood-wise the track sets itself on cruise control for 9 minutes of squiggles and guitar soloing, and then closes things out with 3 more minutes of fluttering squiggles. Sure it doesn’t sound bad, but it bores over its 12 long minutes. McGuire compliments what the other two are doing here much better when he’s sticks to minimal patterns, for instance on “Double Helix” and “Shade”. The title track is the other long song, but it makes good as it traverses dancy, krauty, overblown noise, and languid space rock territory.
Despite a lot of momentum seepage and fatigue-inducing repetition, there are some gems here. “Science Center” wrings emotion out of the same old robotics with slurring and filtering effects, like Endless Summer-era Fennesz, and shows as much attention to how the track ends as how it begins – a rarity for Emeralds. “Summerdata” also benefits from slowing the sonics down and allowing them some room to breathe, calling to mind seeing a sunset through a screened in sunporch. “Goes By” is sandwiched between the two behemoth tracks and is the most refreshing piece on the album, slowly transitioning a sweet drone to a twinkling arpeggio, and then into sputtering digital debris. The whole thing feels like you’re slowly traveling from the atmospheric environment to the subatomic level.
For Emeralds, the future could hold anything. . It’s interesting that they chose to work in miniature this time out, as it seems to go against their strengths. They seem to have a good grasp of the new equipment, and extract some pretty great sounds from it; even as the songs sometimes are weighted down by too much arpeggiated clutter. To answer their titular question, sometimes it doesn’t look like they are here controlling the direction of the songs, instead letting the synths run amok and soloing on autopilot. Hopefully the next release will see them fold everything they’ve learned on this release into their longer-form, anything-goes style.