Your gut reaction to the debut album by Deathfix could depend on your perspective: If you see it as a Rich Morel project that just happened to be released by Dischord, then it’ll seem like a high point in a career full of interesting turns. If you see it as a Dischord record that happens to feature somebody named Rich Morel, it could be confusing at first. But that’s not a bad thing, necessarily.
Morel, for the uninitiated, is a DJ/producer/songwriter/performer who teamed up with Bob Mould a decade ago to create Blowoff, the 9:30 Club party night that mixes dance music and indie rock, and generally, but not exclusively, appeals to a gay crowd. Beyond his house-music roots, Morel also has cranked out several albums of original dance-rock tunes: 2008’s underappreciated The Death of the Paperboy, for instance, was a surprisingly fresh combination of Mouldian riffs and readily remixable rhythms. He also recently helped Cyndi Lauper with songs for the musical Kinky Boots.
For Dischord heads, Deathfix’s boldface names are guitarist Brendan Canty (Fugazi’s drummer, who met Morel when both played in Mould’s touring band), drummer Devin Ocampo (guitarist/singer for Medications and Faraquet) and bassist Mark Cisneros (a multi-instrumentalist for Medications), who all contribute greatly to the album’s feel. But Morel’s aesthetic—a certain theatricality, ’90s-style alt-rock sweep, and accessibility—commands the ship. The album also gets much from the ’60s and ’70s—from Mott the Hoople and T. Rex (“Better Than Bad,” where Canty’s riffs sound brilliantly glammy), to sprawling piano rock (“Playboy,” one of the great nightcap songs in recent memory)—but none of those factors seems overly retrograde.
There’s nary a tentative note, either. The nine-minute “Transmission” evolves from new-wave tension to a long, loud freakout—skronky sax included—as though these guys have been stomping around stadiums all their lives. And anybody wondering where the post-punk went will be pleased with “Mind Control,” which sounds like an extension of Completely Removed, Medications’ strong 2010 LP. (Morel and Canty led Deathfix’s recording and mixing, while the mastering was handled by indie hero Bob Weston.)
When the lyrics are more front-and-center, Deathfix has to work harder to find a balance point for the dramatic tension. It happens easily with the piano-based, string-accented “Low Lying Dreams,” where Morel’s baritone billows out moody lines like “The grass is green/But the sun never shines/Missin’ things that were never mine/In a field of low-lying dreams.” But the Medications-tinged “Hospital” gets heavy-handed after awhile, even though Canty tries not to oversell the story with his half-whispery vocals (“There’s a patient sleeping soundly/In a bed where another little girl was found dead/She had a DNR”).
The overtly funky and undeniably catchy “Dali’s House” is where everything goes out the window: Ocampo plays behind the beat, Cisneros finds a groove somewhere between Chic and Fugazi, Canty rips his way through a cocky main riff and wah-wah rhythm lines, and Morel talk-sings about all the cool people he’d metaphorically like to have inside him. In case any LCD Soundsystem fans might cry foul at the familiar combination of danceability and name-checking, he offers up this nugget: “I wish I was James Murphy’s house/Because you could steal ideas and Daft Punk’s always playin’ there.”
It’s easily the most pop-soaked and mainstream-friendly song ever released on Dischord, and if it weren’t so deliberately cheeky, it might’ve sunk the whole album. Instead, it’s a worthy risk, the kind that famous labels are supposed to take once in awhile. If sometimes the track is too rich for the given moment, well, that’s the price of genre-busting. In this day and age, calling it straight-up apostasy would just be stupid.