In the world of indie rock, few descriptors are as liberally tossed about and just plain abused as “childlike.” Typically, the term is applied to bands that want to sound just like Beat Happening or ones that trade in a kind of color by numbers surrealism: just start with an op-art album cover, remember to write at least one song about an animal’s interior world and, most importantly, make sure Ben H. Allen is producing your record.
Luckily, for those of us who are tired of seeing the utterly bizarre aspects of youth reduced to something so formulaic, there’s Blanche Blanche Blanche, a pair of incredibly prolific lo-fi synth abstractionists. On their latest full-length, Wooden Ball, Vermont’s Sarah Smith and Zach Phillips travel further than ever into the outer limits of the childhood experience. Imagine the music that might be made by pre-teens who have been allowed to listen to nothing but the most alienating corners of R. Stevie Moore’s extended discography, and you’re probably inching in the right direction. Or maybe you could approach Wooden Ball by thinking of it as the most difficult post-punk or no wave from a parallel universe where the first wave of punk itself never actually existed. There’s no self-serious posturing or empty-headed abrasiveness to be found in Wooden Ball, yet the album’s strident insularity gives it a sort of art-punk mindset. Smith and Phillips don’t come off as nihilists, purposefully trying to write songs that no one could ever like, it’s just that they don’t seem to care about writing songs that will be enjoyed by anyone outside of their tiny two person circle. Yet the deeper they go into their shared headspace, the more interesting they become.
Past Blanche Blanche Blanche releases like 2012’s Wink With Both Eyes were at least in the ballpark of, say, John Maus’s brain-damaged pop deconstructions. Wooden Ball, on the other hand, doesn’t really resemble the home-recorded strangeness emanating from any other bedrooms around the nation. But if Smith and Phillips are increasingly distancing themselves from other contemporary artists, they’re getting better and better at tapping into a grade school mentality that, for all its eccentricities, is oddly universal. Is there any kid who hasn’t repeated words endlessly until they devolved into meaningless sounds? Or found the most obnoxious possible tones on a decaying Casio and used them to play the same notes over and over? These experiences are probably actually the best reference points for Blanche Blanche Blanche’s sensibility.
This thread also extends to their lyrics, even when on the surface, the songs purport to be about the music industry, art school and, rather unbelievably, TED Talks. For the most part, the words really seem to be a product of cutting and pasting the English language until its inherent absurdities start to show.
The weirdness of lines like “Let the birds out/I can see them nestling in your mouth/With a feather for a shout” is only magnified by the multi-tiered ironies that Smith’s off-the-wall intonations suggest. Maintaining the purity of their in- jokes, be they opaquely funny or just plain impenetrable, takes precedence over pretty much everything in Blanche Blanche Blanche’s world. And that makes these probably overeducated, pun-obsessed adults and their garage sale-quality keyboards seem about as spiritually punk as any young brigade of Scandinavian blood brothers.