The subject's a speculative mess, but sometimes I can't help but wonder what happened to the outsider artist. That first high school hotbox session with a copy of The Doldrums always felt like it was destined to be a fleeting memory, but I had no clue how rare of a moment that would end up being. Once Ariel Pink's version of pop stardom turned strangely from parody to reality, it seemed rarer still. No disrespect, 'cause lord knows he's paid his dues, but in those instances where the delusion unexpectedly becomes true, I can't help but wonder whether the intention was to be inside, not out, the entire time. The idea alone sucks the rebellious winds out of high-school-me's tummy, but records like Blanche Blanche Blanche's Wink With Both Eyes make me feel like a young listener again. One of five albums they'll have released on four different labels in 2012, it is, to me, one of the best pop albums of the year so far. In place of the self-aggrandizing, drugged-up fantasy world baggage of Pink or his disciples' euphoric noise, we get, in glorious lo-fi, a blunt poeticizing and dry orchestrating of more grounded human relations. At times you get let in on clever jokes, at other times dark secrets, but either way, the experience is poignant, personal, and totally weird.
Listening to Zach Phillips, Sarah Smith, and their VT friends perform this progressive muzak-punk song cycle elicits the same sensation you might get watching that fucking brilliant kid in class who totally prepared her presentation just a few minutes ago at lunch-- quietly urgent and understatedly clever, a few ketchup stains glowing on her notes. I wouldn't be surprised if the quirky chord changes, breakneck pace, and heavily chromatic melodies of this weirdo synth-pop demand sheet music; and yet, their songs still manage to sound like casual one-takes, embodying that old school philosophy of building songs around the performance space rather than the control room. Sarah's mumbled delivery might fool you into thinking she's shy, but when she tosses off heartbreakers like "Standing ovation, so loud (it didn't make a sound) / I'd run away from here to be a beggar (with or without you)" on "With or Without You," you feel like you've been exposed to the deepest urges of the character she's playing within minutes of meeting. Zach reveals a similarly curious gift of deception in his consistently amazing synth solos, which play out like malfunctioning robot telegrams that are meant to deliver obituaries but, injured from water damage, inappropriately warp at the wrong times-- like the out-of-time fluctuations midway through "The River," or the early Eno-esque bleeps and bloops in "That's Siberia."
Despite the album's exposed left turns, what's really at work here is the kind anthemic, inspired songwriting that could thrive in any context-- no matter how it is marketed, sold, or timed. "The River" begs a group sing-a-long in its doubled vocals, and hipsters throughout the world will drunkenly, joyously stumble through the tongue-twisting call-and-response of "Ana's Life." And then there's "Runny Day," a perfect slice of pop escapism whose desperate one-note melody, album-stealing synth solo, and bouncing keys fit neatly into 2 minutes. It still makes me cry nine times out of every ten when I listen to Sarah's gut-wrenching revelation that "The good news, / The good lie: / When you're rich, / You can die" and that "[she] did every single thing, / but it's too late, / it's too late." All of BBB's albums are unique, but Wink With Both Eyes is their finest statement with their fullest range. What I mentioned earlier about outsider (pop) art, though a tad melodramatic, really stems from a fear that, with Internet eyes at constant attention, the outliers who are doing it themselves will stop doing it for themselves and settle for the rewards reserved for those reasonably willing to homogenize for food or comfort. But when I listen to a loving labor of this pedigree and watch it, after a quiet entrance, make such an unassuming ascent to the crest of my Top 25 Most Played list, I remember how many beautiful, individual surprises there are every day in the underground.
Wink With Both Eyes is out now on Night People