“We’re called DIIV. We’re from New York City. Thank you.” It’s the same ten words that come out of Zach Cole Smith’s mouth at the start of every DIIV gig. Youtube commenters from San Diego, Mexico and even as far as Santiago, Chile all recount the same opening phrase. When I caught the band in Vancouver it was those same ten words: “We’re called DIIV. We’re from New York City. Thank you.” Music aside for the moment, Smith’s dry stage humour mixed with the band’s I-could-give-a-fuck persona—along with the members having consistently popped up in the media despite a four year album gap—make DIIV one of the more intriguing outfits feeling their way through the recesses of contemporary dream-pop. Speaking of outfits, did I miss something or are DIIV Brooklyn’s guinea pigs for a pyjamacore movement? Hard to say the real shape of their bodies under all that fabric.
DIIV – Is The Is Are
(Captured Tracks, 2016)
DIIV played in Vancouver four months ago, at which point the band had mastered much of Is The Is Are live, the album’s tracks in full rotation that night along with a few classics from Oshin. “Bent (Roi’s Song)” and “Dopamine” were obvious standouts from the performance, and this was before I had heard the recorded versions of either. Both tracks, appearing in tandem early on the album, are serious earworms. “Bent..” is rife with hooky, down tuned guitars that feel more indebted to MBV’s “Who Sees You” than Can’s “Mushroom,” despite what Smith might tell you about his influences. “Dopamine,” aside from its account of heroin addiction is the albums’s most inaccurately named song, as its packed with an energy seldom heard on the album. Lyrically, the song is one of Smith’s more sophisticated: “shots ringing out, I’m soaking / eardrums shaking, years start weighing me down / crawling out from a spiral down / fixing now to mix the white and brown.” It’s not Destroyer, but the band doesn’t exactly exist to make poetry. Albiet, in their own regard, they do.
What DIIV certainly do excel at is knowing their range. If Oshin laid out a spectrum for the band’s sound, than Is The Is Are feels almost regressive, narrowing the focus even more. That’s dangerous territory for a band whose box of effects seems to only contain reverb pedals. The good news is that despite the band’s sound showing little evolution, their ability to manipulate the tone of a song has come a long way. Also, over the span of 17 songs, Smith pushes his voice in new ways, feeling his way through more complex verse structures that seed themselves in the listener’s subconscious. A spin or two of “Healthy Moon”, for example, won’t reveal much, but subsequent listens begins to show Smith’s vocal prowess. He’s no Bob Dylan, but he’s learning to accentuate words in ways that have given these new set of DIIV songs a depth, despite seeming shallow at first.
If tone is of main concern here than Is The Is Are is a darker affair than Oshin. Take for example “Blue Boredom (Sky Song),” the Sky in question being Sky Ferreira, who takes full vocal responsibilities on the track, channeling the dread and gloom of early Swans era Jarboe. Or, “Take Your Time,” a chill song even for DIIV’s standards that sounds like an ode to late spring suburban weed burnout. “Mire (Grant’s Song)” is reminiscent of The Cure (and is probably also about weed) while the closer “Waste of Breath” would have floated Ian Curtis’s boat if he were around to hear it.
Back to those ten words: “We’re called DIIV. We’re from New York City. Thank you.” Sure, Smith seems like a funny dude, but these ten words speak a little deeper. DIIV, like any other band trying to make it in the ever more crowded arena of must-hear musical acts, are, in the loosest sense of the word, a brand. A brand needs to sell itself. And how do DIIV sell themselves? It’s a simple ratio consisting of equal parts anticipation, quality and consistency, all of which the band have graciously provided us up to this point.