The New Orleans indie rock duo have a good new album that's best heard a track at a time.
Members of Generationals have spoken in interviews about not feeling like they’re a part of New Orleans’ music community. That’s understandable. Despite the national excitement that 2009’s Con Law stirred, they have been largely ignored by Jazz Fest, Voodoo, and those outside of the indie rock community. They’re not alone as New Orleans is slow to wrap its head around artists in the city who don’t fit neatly into slots people are used to embracing, but that doesn’t make the alienation any easier to take.
That said, the looseys the band recorded in 2017 and 2018 that became State Dogs and the recently released Reader as Detective make me wonder if Grant Widmer and Ted Joyner would feel musically at home anywhere. Is alienation part of their art, or is it something that has seeped into it? The videos for State Dogs’ “Mythical” and “Turning the Screw” isolate the individuals in the frame, highlighting the distance between people, even when they’re together. On Reader as Detective, Widmer and Joyner’s vocals are processed until they exist as sounds more than assembled phonemes. They carry the melody and mood, but the songs don’t hurt themselves in an effort to communicate with listeners. Generationals’ lyrics have always had an allusive privacy to them, but the sound frequently make it semm as though their process begins and ends with expressing themselves. What others do with the songs is their business.
That’s not a problem for me, and I make the observation as a statement of fact not criticism. I love songwriters who work through a thought until they nail it down in clear subject/verb/object form, but The New Pornographers’ A.C. Newman has yet to toss me a word salad that I find offputting. There are even more songs that I like even though I don’t understand the singer at all—a gift, I think, when I later google the lyrics. Still, fans gravitate toward lyricists that say the things they wish they could say or present a persona they wish they could inhabit. Inscrutability is a drag on that relationship.
Fortunately, the electronic haze that adds hiss to the vocals is part of the album’s sonic footprint. Synthesizers and programmed percussion have become bigger parts of Generationals’ sound in recent years, and here it’s prominent, expressed in a Kraftwerkian monochromatic electronic keyboard palate. Like other electronic minimalists, that uniformity can cause tracks to blur together, but isolate the songs and the stacked, sibilant voices deliver engaging melodies that are smartly framed by the kind of subtly inventive popcraft that has been Generationals’ calling card since their days in The Eames Era. I hear echoes of a line from Belle and Sebastian’s “Like Dylan in the Movies” in the pulsing “I’ve Been Wrong Before,” but once the vocal kicks in, the song is pure Generationals, and the chorus—“I took you for a better friend / but I’ve been wrong before”—gives it a musical and lyrical payoff. The chiming Rickenbacher guitar that brightened up earlier songs is largely absent from Reader as Detective, but sharp, choppy guitar chords give “Gatekeeper” a different, chipper energy. The aquatic “Xeno Bobby” borders on sweetly psychedelic. Each of those songs and a number of others were revelations when I heard them as individual tracks because the shared elements muted their charms when hear as an album.
The songs’ individualized charms may be a byproduct of the State Dogs experience. For that album, Widmer and Joyner worked on songs as songs with no regard for the album that they might become. They wanted songs that could stand on their own and didn’t need the ones around them to prop them up or give them context. Reader as Detective sounds like it could be a product of that kind of process, and the way the songs come to life on their own makes me think that the album solves a challenge presented by the streaming era: How does an album fit into playlist days? The sound unifies Reader as Detective and the tone makes me think the words are of a piece as well. It’s a coherent thought that satisfies the artists’ desire to make a larger statement and the listener’s urge to engage with an artist on the deeper level that an album offers. At the same time, the songs are best heard as part of the most current, meaningful unit of musical measure—the playlist. In that way, Generationals and Reader as Detective seem right on time, even as they seem personally detached.