‘Psychic’ is perfect listening for studying

by Kyle McGoey | 11/17/13 4:24pm

Finals season is upon us, ladies and gentlemen. For me, finals always bring an interesting feeling to campus. The library grows fuller as the frat basements start to empty. The conversations grow shorter, the under-eye bags grow darker and meals with friends become FoCo takeout eaten hurriedly over a textbook in the 1902 Room. In the fall especially, the weather starts to reflect the general mood of campus, the days growing shorter, darker and colder as the finals grind begins to chip away at our collective sanity. The gray haze that settles over the deserted Green as harried students scuttle from group project meetings to review sessions to office hours casts an unsettling, almost morbid shadow. They may only be tests and papers and presentations, but sometimes it starts to feel like we’re preparing for an apocalypse.

Some try to escape that apocalypse. They fill their mugs up with King Arthur Flour espresso and their study playlists with Jack Johnson, hoping to beat back the rising tide of work with an infusion of good vibes. I respect their approach, but I’ve never found it to be very successful. In the spring, it was Paul Simon; in the winter, Zac Brown Band; and in the fall, for whatever strange reason, it was Maroon 5’s “Payphone,” repeated ad nauseam as I hammered out the final pages of a history paper. But each time, my sunny tunes were unable to lift the scowl from my face. Finals suck, and all the Paul Simon in the world isn’t going to change that.

So if there’s no way to escape the gloom and doom of finals, why not just dive in? I’m not suggesting we all paint our nails black and wallow in our despair, but sometimes the most satisfying way to get through a tough time is to embrace it, to confront the challenges and the emotions head on and find the strength to rise up and defeat them.

In that spirit, I’ve got the perfect album for your finals playlist: “Psychic,” the first full-length release from Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington’s Darkside project. The Brown University graduates have broken into the experimental dance music scene at a record pace. Since his first album, “Space Is Only Noise,” which garnered rave reviews from critics, Jaar has come to be known as one of the most forward-thinking and talented electronic musicians of the modern era. He’s since leveraged this status into main-stage festival spots, a full-album remix of Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories” and a host of well-deserved positive press for “Psychic.”

Before I fall into my usual cycle of positive hyperbole, let me offer a caveat. If you’re in the market for easy listening, you should look elsewhere. There’s nothing too abrasive or intimidating about the musical elements at work here, but the sonic landscape Jaar and Harrington create can be quite unsettling. The woozy, narcotic pulse of the album often seems like it’s trying to struggle its way out of quicksand, beats and textures clawing their way out of the narcotic haze that permeates “Psychic” before being subsumed once again. The “blue-wave” that Jaar and Harrington craft takes its cues from the frigid world of minimal techno, already outside the wheelhouse of most casual listeners, and slows the tempos down to a punch-drunk, disorienting pace.

But when all of the pieces come together, “Psychic” provides an incredibly rewarding listening experience. The flickering guitar line and half-step disco beat of “Golden Arrow” rise out of the primordial ooze off-step from each other, but when they finally lock in they create an impeccably tight groove, a pulsating bass line rising up to fill in the cracks. Most dance artists bludgeon you with the groove, but Darkside wants to take you on a journey into the deepest recesses of the club, the dark corners where the strobe lights and lasers can’t reach.

“Golden Arrow” is the album’s crowning achievement, but there are certainly other highlights. “Paper Trail” flits between paranoid and placid, Jaar’s pitch-shifted croon conjuring up images of a peaceful home and a flaming forest. “The Only Shrine I’ve Seen” builds a rigid, martial groove into an infectious disco-inflected beat that dissolves into a haze as quickly as it came.

Each song is striking in its own right, but it’s as a cohesive piece that they really shine, providing a listening experience that is as rich and powerful as it is challenging. “Psychic” might leave you exhausted and defeated, and finals might do the same. Together, though, they just might rock your world.