Hiding In Plain Sight
Apparently, over 2/3rds of the music people are buying and consuming today is old music, a big increase from a few years ago. Lots of bands from the seventies are making a killing financially, and lots of bands today are emulating that kind of enduring style. Indie in particular has become something of a nostalgia factory, and Michael Collin’s rock outfit Drugdealer is a pretty obvious example.
Circa 2016, the band was all dreamy, stoned indie rock, with an obvious vintage sensibility in their distinctive, clean guitar sound and Weyes Blood’s lush vocals. I remember hearing “Suddenly” a few years back and mistaking it for some ethereal gem from the late 60’s. But the intervening years between Drugdealer’s debut and today have been, perhaps, not so psychedelic. On Hiding In Plain Sight, they are channeling the seventies, and it’s all cocaine instead of LSD, serial killers and stagflation.
Lyrically the record wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s all about love, the seedy kind, the fleeting and mythic kind, the openhearted kind. A few people, but mostly Collins, sing about mystery women, lost lovers, and broken dreams, his voice sitting high in the mix and without any filter. Collins has talked about his vocal shyness, and it can show; his singing lacks the depth and precision of Weyes Blood and Kate Bollinger, the latter of whom kills it on the softly grooving “Pictures of You”. But Collin’s tenor can, on the right songs, give the whole thing a kind of appealing tension, velvety smooth against love-drunk raggedness. Characters in Drugdealer’s world are filled with regret and obsession, crying out on the streets of dirty L.A, backed by a punchy, precise rhythm section and consistently jazzy rhodes piano. It’s yacht rock, fitting in somewhere between the collegiate ennui of Steely Dan and the buttery crooning of Michael McDonald. But the vintage quality can also come across as pretty tongue in cheek. It’s not that they’re joking, it’s that there’s a distance, a disaffected irony, that might be inherent in playing music that stands out of its time.
Collins makes little tweaks here and there, but overwhelmingly the point is to conjure up the escapism inherent in nostalgic music. This can go too far. A couple times it comes off as if it’s a grab-bag of old rock n’ roll. “Baby”, the second track, is essentially a Buddy Holly track landing awkwardly on an Eagles record. There is a voice that manages to get through, but it’s interrupted at times.
But within the creative constraints the record assigns itself, there are some absolute gems. The opener “Madison” does a fantastic job setting the classic tone to the album. Collins pines after a glamorous, shadowy lady, “the kind of woman that can really get you down”, and ever since she fled south, Collins laments, “I’ve been tryna find someone/ Just like you, Madison”. “Hard Dreaming Man” is a hazy, swinging tune about being down and out, randomly conjuring up images in my head of a guy with a gunny sack trekking wearily around Los Angeles. When they’re at their best, Drugdealer makes songs that would make movies better.
“Valentine”, my favorite track, is a love song, an ode to a present someone in Collins life. There’s something practical and bittersweet there, especially compared with the elusive “Madison”, which lends a kind of poignant tension to the album. It’s a riff on, and a challenge, to the old Steven Stills maxim, question and paradox; “If you can’t be with the one you love/ Love the one you’re with”. That line was from the 70s too, which Collins and Drugdealer can, doubtless, appreciate.
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