Drunk Is The New Sober and Stupid Is The New Dumb are the twin subtitles of Drunk & Stupid, Dots Will Echo's debut album on Asthmatic Kitty, but those aren't just arch witticisms, they encapsulate the apparent contradictions that power the New Jersey duo's music. The warmly weird world created by multi-instrumentalist Nick Berry and drummer Kurt Biroc seems simultaneously sacred and profane, edgy and accessible, sad and transcendently silly. What else would you expect from a group that describes itself as "dour moralizers and drunken assholes" and identifies its key influences as "A little bit The Incredible String Band, a little bit AC/DC?"
"I can see the carnival lights from here," sings Berry in a half-crazed, half-elated tone at the beginning of the opening track, "I Like It," sounding like either a psychotic infatuated with his own attractive fantasy world or a genius inventor marveling at the luminous landscape he's created. It's up to the listener to decide which, but either way it's 100% Dots Will Echo.
Everything on Drunk & Stupid was played by Berry and Biroc, with the basic tracks recorded in a single marathon, three-day session. "I meant this to be a very raw recording, capturing the way we sound live," says Berry, who plays everything from guitars and keyboards to Autoharp, glockenspiel, and Andean charango over the course of the album, as he and Biroc build their own beautifully ramshackle universe from the ground up before your very ears.
"A poorly played violin can sound better than a well played piano," says Berry half-jokingly of the organic, offhand feel of the tracks. From the first moment, Drunk & Stupid makes the listener a fly on the wall for a day in the life of Dots Will Echo, with snatches of goofy studio chatter interspersed between tunes. The bit that leads into the crooked campfire singalong "I'm a Monkey" is particularly telling, as Berry spontaneously announces, "I want to try a song I dreamt the other night," Biroc disapprovingly asks, "In the studio?" and Berry blithely counters, "Yeah, why not?"
In fact, Berry dreams a large percentage of his songs. "Some are stupid, but I let 'em fly anyway," he says self-deprecatingly, "but the really stupid ones, nobody's ever gonna hear." By the time they enter our waking world, Berry's tunes bear trace elements of psychedelia, power pop, field-recording folk, DIY post-punk, and tantalizingly trashy garage rock (the duo does in fact rehearse in Biroc's garage). "What You Tryin' To Do," for instance, comes off like Sister Lovers-era Big Star recording for Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, while the giddy blastoff of "Rocket Girl" evokes early XTC covered by Guided By Voices, and the fragile, almost-ominous beauty of the hushed, acoustic ballad "Gates of Eden" feels like the greatest song Neil Young never wrote for Galaxie 500.
The black humor that inhabits an impressive amount of real estate in the Dots Will Echo neighborhood isn't the whistling-through-the-graveyard variety, but rather the kind that finds all of creation to be a bit of a knee-slapper. Like the great writers in every medium, Berry finds the human dilemma a source of endless hilarity, even though you can always hear the big, gently bruised heart beating at the core of every song on Drunk & Stupid. Berry sounds like an amphetamine-fueled tour guide as he walks us through a field of mankind's folly on "Seven Deadly Sins," his loopy lyrics punctuated by Captain Beefheart-esque bursts of six-string cubism.
Even when things get apocalyptic, as on the minimalist stomp of the cautionary "Shitstorm," Berry exhibits so much obvious glee in announcing the impending arrival of the titular phenomenon that you can't help singing "there's a shitstorm coming" right along with him and bobbing your head randomly to the track's triumphantly spastic anti-groove. The deceptively mellow-sounding anthem of global dystopia "History's Grave" was written in early 2008, but Berry notes, "Since then many of the events mentioned or alluded to have come to pass. This made me feel a little bit like a character in a Stephen King novel."
At the same time, Drunk & Stupid sports songs like "Be a Friend" and "So Deep the Night," lambent, low-key ballads that balance between bittersweet and unabashedly sentimental without ever turning mawkish. On these tracks, the Lennon-like undertone in Berry's voice rises to the top of the mix, tapping into an almost spiritual vibe and making for some of the most undeniably poignant moments on the album.
Berry and Biroc, who also work together at the same day job (the drummer is Berry's boss), have been making music together since 2004, hashing out their ideas in Biroc's garage and documenting them in Berry's basement studio. Along the way, they've made unofficial micro-pressings of their work, mostly for passing around to friends and admirers in an ad hoc fashion, but Drunk & Stupid represents the first time the duo's freewheeling work has ever been properly presented to the public at large as a full-on album. With all the material the prolific pair has been stockpiling, they had a huge tally of tunes to haul along with them for this project, and hearing it is a little like stumbling for the first time into a lost world with a long legacy of its own rituals, relics, regalia, and history. But once you wander in, you can't imagine how you ever existed without it.
Originally meant to be two separate discs (the vinyl version is a double LP with download codes for bonus tracks), Drunk & Stupid is a wild ride that clocks in at just under 80 minutes and boasts 19 songs overflowing with insanely catchy melodies, endearingly off-kilter arrangements, and a strangely satisfying blend of the divine and the absurd." As Berry says, "We try to allow for the will of the universe to have a large part in our music. There must be something sacred in mistakes. This is our explanation for being fuck-ups."
2. I Like It
3. Untitled II
4. I'm a Monkey
6. Be a Friend
7. Whatcha Tryin to Do
8. Rocket Girls
10. Run Away Anna
11. History's Grave
12. Sweet Sweet Sanity
14. Who Left You Here
15. The Future
16. Untitled III
17. Peace in Your Life
18. Our Little Part of the World
19. Untitled IV
20. Gates of Eden
21. Visions of Light
22. Seven Deadly Sins
23. So Deep the Night