Waking Life

If you snooze through Detroit's Slumber Party, you may miss the sound of their alarm

Slumber parties seem like innocent fun: a gaggle of girlies shimmying around in frilly nighties and whispering tinsel mysteries to one another until the godlike voice of Mom shushes them from upstairs. But anyone who has ever counted herself in among the bunny-slippered brigade knows that if she stays up past the screening of Pretty in Pink, things get evil. Suddenly there's no slumber, no party. There is only sleep-deprived combat designed to keep the hierarchy of adolescent popularity in place, and the pretty girls will do anything--pillow fight, bra theft and refrigeration, warm-water finger immersion--to wake the frumpy girls who snooze.

Much like their namesake, Detroit's Slumber Party sound misleadingly innocuous. Their latest album, Psychedelicate (Kill Rock Stars), is drowsy reverb pop for a semi-drunk crowd--like the Shop Assistants chugging down the NyQuil at an after-hours party. It's slow-tempoed, it borrows from the sleepy, heroin-laced vocals and buzzing guitars of Sixties psychedelia, and it tempts you to leave it running while you're paying attention to something else--you could listen to it all night on repeat and never really notice until it stops playing. Lead singer (and former Minnesotan) Aliccia Berg's wavering vocals almost slur into one enormous run-on sentence, slipping into the bleary keyboards and faint guitars.

But like all good sleep-inducing pop, and like all calculating slumber-party attendees, the band is deceptively dark and alert. Perhaps this is why they were able to snap Slim Moon to attention. In the late Nineties, the owner of Kill Rock Stars dug through the thousands of demo tapes that inundate the label's mailboxes and, after being impressed by Slumber Party's Spacemen 3-like minimalism, signed them. The same demo recognition happened with Alan Magee, who enlisted Slumber Party for his Poptones label in the U.K. At the time, the members of Slumber Party were still teaching themselves how to play their instruments. But their previous musical experience didn't seem to matter: When their self-titled debut was released, fans nostalgic for a Nico-era drone were waiting for it. The pretty girls had reawakened a section of the pop-weary public.

Psychedelicate, Slumber Party's sophomore release, plays like the milder sonic equivalent of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali's Un Chien Andalou: The songwriting sounds automatic and subconscious, but the creepy surrealist imagery seems intended to jolt the lazy listener out of passive aural contemplation. Psychedelicate is a razor-to-your-eyeball soundtrack, a battle between appeasing aesthetics and stimulating vision. On the album's opener, "Bag of Spiders," Berg sings, "There's a bag of spiders behind my ears/One falls out for every year," while soft drums pluck out a slow, respiratory rhythm and staccato guitar chords disrupt the flow.

It seems that Berg might be referencing Slumber Party's annual album releases, each filled with songs that crawl into your ear canal while jarring lyrics or instrumentation keep them from settling comfortably in your brain. That old musician's opiate, cloudy reverb, settles over "Kick This Habit," but listen closely: Berg is singing that falling in love makes her "sweat like a tortured rabbit"--this is not the sentimental contentedness generated by your usual love song. And on "Depression Is Best," a slow, Go-Go's style melody masks what is, at the core, a dark and contemplative song. You miss these small incongruities if you don't fixate on the details.

Psychedelicate is an ongoing attempt to break pop away from its pacifying nature. And those who still think the album sounds like harmless background music had best beware: Slumber Party guitarist Gretchen Gonzales has been known to play her instrument with a rock instead of a pick. Stay awake!

 
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