Review: Peaking Lights - Cosmic Logic


“Infinite Trips” is a fairly expectable title for the opening track of a Peaking Lights album. Obviously, there’s the drug reference (did we expect summat else?) to mark what follows as “psychedelic.” Trips—get it? Of course you do. As someone born into postmodernism, I spent a long time wondering how literally to take them: the overt naff-ness of the “druggy band,” with its ecstatic and too-obvious references to the hallucinogenic. Is it supposed to be read as an anachronistic goof?

The cover art for “Cosmic Logic” and 2011’s “936,” apparently influenced by 80s Miami and Japanese psych-art, could definitely be meant as kitsch. The lyrics are similarly hard to pin down. They tend to be charmingly clunky in a way that could be faux-naïve—“sophisticated duh,” in Dave Hickey’s words—or just, well, duh.

But Peaking Lights are for real; very much so. In fact, this is a part of what is, to me, their strong appeal. They are one of those bands that are post-everything, and this includes being post-ironic. They display that millennial trait—so irksome to those born in the seventies—of genuinely admiring things that are, objectively, pretty bad. In other words, their nods to the poorer quarters of druggy culture are not a snide pose, as much as a love of heightened and altered experiences.

The saving grace of Lights, for me, has been exactly this unfeigned sense of wonder. Whether it was about getting high or growing up, their wide-eyed appreciation seemed genuine in an era of painful self-awareness. This was communicated, in no small part, through their technical mediocrity as artists. There was a great intimacy to the records, an exposure in the middling skills that band-mates Indra Dunis and Aaron Coyes brought to the table. Something was radiant amid the murk, almost painfully present and bright. This was something precious; something the surgical ironists of a million Silverlakes couldn’t fake. It was—as nostalgic and uncool as this might sound—personality. And this was the secret of their charm: Peaking Lights have always been exceptional at being mediocre.

This allowed them to explore familiar themes, and speak about them in ways that other bands couldn’t. For all the snarky commentary, for example, “Lucifer” captured something in the life of couple hood—becoming a family—in a genuinely affecting way. “Beautiful Son” is a lovely song, partly because of its simplicity. The subject of the record was even more likable because it was so far beyond the pale of relevance. What could be less appealing to hipsters than making a record about your kids?

But despite the title, the opening seconds of “Infinite Trips” do not suggest business as usual for the Lights. The song begins with a hoary rock ‘n roll convention: the tap of drumsticks, counting in the beat. A guitar line chimes in—perfect sunny melancholy, in the Californian bipolar tradition. It sounds like anything you’d hear on a Real Estate record. The music sounds, more or less, like the work of an obedient West Coast indie band. Most noticeable, though, is the presentation of Dunis’ singing; it’s clear, and pushed right to the front of the mix. This is an inversion of the Lights’ prior musical tendency, where the vocals are recessed, to blend into the foam of synth and guitar. Before “Cosmic Logic,” they added mostly colour and mood, and the specifics of melody or lyric were somewhat beside the point.

What we are hearing, here, seems to be both a geographical and artistic shift. Many fans were concerned when Coyes and Dunis recently moved to LA. And from Madison, Wisconsin, no less—that redoubt of Midwestern gentility. This relocation seems to have been matched by the transition toward a more self-conscious (and perhaps more orthodox) sound. In this sense, “Cosmic Logic” appears to record the birth of a legitimate, career rock band.

Stripped of the layered reverbs, echoes and drones, the songs—beginning with “Telephone Call” and “Hypnotic Hustle”—have an explicitly No Wave feel. There’s a lot of Tom Tom Club, for example, in the chanted rhyming couplets, and references to outer space and disco-era slang. Coyes’ synths sound uptight, like a set of Roland TR patterns. “Dreamquest” has a slightly more exotic, questing spirit, and “Bad With The Good” appears to have some deep house in its DNA. In many ways, the grammar of the songs is familiar. It’s their hierarchy, the layering of parts, which has been shuffled. It is surprising that this should make such a difference, that their compositions would be so sensitive to relatively minor adjustments. This gives certain tracks a directed, purposeful feel. Overall, though, you may feel the loss of that old intimacy—strange, given that everything in the mix of “Cosmic Logic” sounds closer, clearer, and more accessible.

What Los Angeles will do to Peaking Lights is an open question. Regardless, it would be a bit shitty of us to ask them to remain unchanged, to keep working the good old method that brings the feels. And even more, it would be missing the point—given that so much of Coyes’ and Dunis’ project has been built around an open-ness to change and expansion. In this sense, I’m optimistically reading “Cosmic Logic” as a transitional work, mid-trip: half-baked and sometimes beautiful and full of intimations. “All the good songs have been written”? I’m not so sure.

01. Infinite Trips
02. Telephone Call
03. Hypnotic Hustle
04. Everyone And Us
05. Little Light
06. Dreamquest
07. Eyes To Sea
08. Bad With The Good
09. New Grrrls
10. Breakdown
11. Tell Me Your Song