Matthew Dear: Asa Breed

Straight up: is Asa Breed as good as Dear's 2003 debut Leave Luck To Heaven? Not quite: there's nothing as career-defining as “Dog Days” though a few songs come close. But Asa Breed is only a disappointment if broached in those arguably unfair terms. Taken on its own, the album succeeds, often marvelously, and a handful of electronic-pop tracks are near-perfect. The critical and popular success of Leave Luck To Heaven could have proved problematic had the Detroit-based artist opted to repeat its formula; the results might have suffered by comparison, and Dear would have done little more than paint himself into a corner. Instead, he embraces new genres with artistic growth the result. Asa Breed does include vocal-based microhouse, but expands upon it with electro-pop as well as bluesy folk tunes that have little or no connection to dance music. Part of that growth can be attributed to influences, with Asa Breed inspired in part by Byrne and Eno's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and Talking Heads. Unusual and inspired instrumental touches abound, such as the zither-like thrum that rises and falls throughout “Fleece on Brain” and the synth hooks that appear throughout. Dear also reinvents his baritone vocal style by multi-tracking it with falsetto (“Fleece on Brain,” “Will Gravity Win Tonight?”).

As stated, some songs could fit into Leave Luck To Heaven: “Neighborhoods,” for one, where his vocal is shadowed by a potent synth hook, and “Fleece on Brain,” which is more like an Audion-Dear fusion; instrumentally, it begins in a propulsive, rich tech-house style that's not dissimilar from Leave Luck To Heaven but Dear's multi-tracked vocal is rather robotic, a bit reminiscent of Gary Numan. On the electro-pop tip, “Deserter” especially stands out, with its seductive atmospheres illuminated by an alluring piano part. The otherwise appealing synth-pop of “Pom Pom” is marred by trite lyrics like “Love can make your world go ‘round / Can really bring you down.” Two of the best songs appear midway through: a remarkable African juju-electronic fusion, “Elementary Lover” (featuring Mobius Band) that, strangely enough, sounds close in spirit, vocally and sonically, to Bowie's Lodger (the way Dear declaims “I've got to figure out love” in “Pom Pom” is also reminiscent of Bowie); and “Don and Sherri,” an irresistibly infectious marriage of electronic soul, funk, and microhouse that finds Dear affecting a New Wave vocal delivery (“I've been writing you letters / But those letters never leave me”), has club monster written all over it. In these cases especially, Dear's music impresses most in its effortless distillation of multiple genres.

Unfortunately, Asa Breed also moves into a bluesy, folk-based realm that's decent enough but isn't on par with the earlier material. With its atmospheric marriage of electronics (synths) and folk elements (acoustic guitar, piano), “Give Me More” is representative of the style, though “Good to Be Alive” distinguishes itself for accompanying its deep-throated chant with a unique fusion of blues, folk, acid, techno, and African musics. The hidden track “Vine to Vine,” an acoustic romp that pairs electric guitar snarl with a distorted blues vocal, manages to pull itself up from the swamp but such tunes are perhaps better left in the hands of others. Regardless of such relative lapses, Dear deserves credit for abandoning the Leave Luck To Heaven template for challenging new territories.

July 2007