Album Review: DIIV – Oshin

[Captured Tracks; 2012]

Around early February, I helped set up for a small show at my college. As I worked, the band lounging near the back of the bar-turned-DIY-space kept grabbing my attention — they were a scrappy bunch with a bohemian charm, youthful and decked out in vintage wear. I’d never listened to them at that point, but their image alone was enticing; I was interested to hear what they were all about. The Mug filled up for their set, and they put on a mesmerizing performance. Their playing was loaded with an energy that set the crowd into motion, nearly reaching punk intensity. But Dive turned the room into more of a dream sequence than a mosh pit that night, filling hundreds of ears with a satisfying wash of reverb-laden guitars and unintelligible vocal turns, as bodies batted against each other in step.

A lot has changed for Dive since February: they’ve changed their name to DIIV, and word of their debut album Oshin has been steadily gathering steam around the Internet. Fronted by Beach Fossils contributor Cole Smith, everyone in the quartet is a water sign, and their astrological fascination with water is apparent from the band name straight down to the beach-ready sound on the record itself. Oshin offers up a platter of tracks that combine steady, driving rhythms and shoegaze guitars to create something that might be better classified as “dream-rock” rather than “dream-pop.”

The album indeed has a heavier and darker edge over a lot of its hazy contemporaries. “Past Lives,” for instance, is a brief track that wakes the album right up following its drowsy instrumental opener “(Druun);” the song holds back for a moment and then unleashes an urgent and uptempo surfgaze tune that rattles more than it jangles. About half of the tracks on Oshin work at this propulsive speed, while the other half pares the energy back and coasts. An exceptional example of this second speed can be found on the kraut-indebted “Air Conditioning,” which builds around a smooth bass rhythm and just jams on it — it’s a soothing movement that rolls and rolls.

Adding to the soothing essence of this album are Smith’s ethereal vocals. While very few lyrics on this album are decipherable even after multiple listens, his voice is distinctly meant more as an additional instrument or texture. No harm done, as he typically only sings a few phrases per track anyways (“How long have you known/How long has it shown/Forever,” “You’ll never have a home…/ ’Til you go home”). Rather than hurt the album, the washed-out vocal melodies color each song; the disembodied effect contributes a beyond-the-underwater-grave vibe to Oshin that casts the record in a mysterious and almost haunting light. Standout track “Doused,” as an example, rolls thunderously through its three and a half minutes, and pushing it along is a rhythmic chant from Smith that swirls and echoes forebodingly.

An invariable complaint about this DIIV album will be that it’s been heard before. Many of the band’s Captured Tracks labelmates do fall under a similar “beachy-dream-pop-with-a-twist!” aesthetic, for sure. The band also certainly recalls acts like Beach House and Real Estate in more ways than one. But I would have to argue that DIIV is forging a distinct voice here among a crowd of familiar faces. Oshin is undeniably a record tailored for driving around with some friends in the dead heat of summer, but the music also packs a range of raw emotions – from the quiet whispers and rolling drums in the title track to the rollicking guitar riffage on “Sometime.” As Cole Smith recently confided to Noisevox “Even when I’m in New York, I still feel like I’m on tour. I still live out of, like, a Ziploc bag, and a backpack… literally.” As Smith suggests here, the members of DIIV live for what they do, and if the passion and energy running through Oshin implies anything, they wouldn’t have it any other way.