At first, you may dismiss Youth Lagoon's new full-length Wondrous Bughouse as a collection of chord changes and sound effects masquerading as songs, but that might be the point. Youth Lagoon songwriter and conceptualist Trevor Powers likes melodies — the simpler the better — and has a talent for marrying them to harmonic structures that are both reassuring and off-putting. Wondrous Bughouse is full of distended keyboard sounds and lumbering drums, with moments that seem to reference '60s and '70s soundtrack music and Saturday-morning cartoon themes. Like his 2011 debut, The Year of Hibernation, the new record has garnered praise for Powers. He may or may not be a genius, but his music has almost nothing to do with rock 'n' roll.
A native of Boise, Idaho, Powers is a favorite of such indie-rock tastemakers as Pitchfork, which has published elaborate exegeses of his work. That's fair enough, but Powers doesn't seem interested in the kind of straightforward expression that would, for example, allow you to understand much of what he's singing about without the aid of a trot. Wondrous Bughouse does allude to pop music — "Sleep Paralysis" is a distant cousin of The Beach Boys' "Heroes and Villains" — but it's pop music as dreamscape.
In his distanced way, Powers is onto something — he could be the kind of pop auteur whose experimental impulses are as interesting as his more conservative efforts. "In the recording process, often you hear things in songs that you wouldn't usually hear, so there is a lot of experimentation like that," Powers tells the Scene via email. "I see music as a sort of vision, and sometimes that vision is blurry and you don't ever feel like you're going to be able to make it clear. Then one day things just click and start to make sense."
The Year of Hibernation was an assured debut — keyboard squiggles interacted with drum sounds that suggested a teenager using a half-inflated basketball as a percussion instrument. "July" began with a childlike melody supported by drumming that shifted from 3/4 to 4/4 time, while drums disrupted the flow of "Cannons."
Hibernation sounded like a stroll down someone's memory lane — "Afternoon" pitted supernal melodies against each other, while "17" found Powers singing about how using your imagination can be fun. He displayed an ear for the conventionally structured pop tune. Still, the record seemed like a collection of drowsy tone poems with words attached, and Powers often sounded not just young, but prenatal.
Wondrous Bughouse is an advance over the first record, with producer Ben Hall adding heft to Powers' melodies. "I love '60s and '70s music, like Strawberry Alarm Clock or Ultimate Spinach," Powers says. "That entire era was this sound that became completely overwhelming, yet people couldn't get enough of it."
"Pelican Man" may be Bughouse's finest moment — it sports a chromatic harmonic structure worthy of Syd Barrett. Meanwhile, "Attic Doctor" works as a piece of abstract pop in waltz time, and suggests the long-neglected influence of Maurice Jarre's soundtrack music for the 1966 film Grand Prix.
Of course, I'm kidding about Grand Prix, although the kind of soundtrack music Jarre wrote may have influenced Powers. What makes Bughouse notable is the way Powers suggests melodic and harmonic development in music that honors stasis. You could draw a line that connects Powers with such '70s minimalist rock artists as Brian Eno, Harold Budd and Robert Wyatt, but you may encounter some kind of gap — a lacuna that separates Powers' youthful lagoon from the pool of impulses that used to be called rock music.