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Helvetia - Dromomania | Album Review

by Dan Murphy (@danmurphy3220)

The Pacific Northwest got its first taste of Helvetia, the brainchild of Seattle-native Jason Albertini, back when their first recordings surfaced in 2006 (long enough ago that the font comparisons are played out, guys). The group was touted as a band to look out for in the few years that followed, but ended up drifting into hiatusland as most of their rotating membership joined Built to Spill’s touring band, Albertini himself taking over bass duties. This year’s release, Dromomania, is their first full-length since 2012’s Nothing in Rambling. If you head to their site you’ll find less of a bio page and more of a free association prose piece akin to something out of a Burroughs notebook. It details the supposed origins of Dromomania, touching on Albertini’s old band Duster, Captain Beefheart’s appearance on Letterman, Stevie Wonder’s performance on Sesame Street, and various references to psychedelic drug use to tie it all together. 

With that setup, it’s not surprising that Dromomania contains a hodgepodge of weird sounds and influence spanning the last fifty years or so, all wrapped in a low-fi psych-rock production. The opening track, “Bermuda,” wouldn’t be entirely out of place on a Kinks record, and Albertini borrows a few production techniques from that era, specifically by panning various instruments left to right in the headphones and ending the song with a noisy wah-wah solo. However, the album takes an immediately left turn with “The Rubber Maids,” which trades off between math-rock riffage and Revolver-styled droning. 

Moving forward, we get a bit of that ‘90s sound expected from a band that was absorbed by Built to Spill, though I’m hearing a lot more Yo La Tengo on this record in addition to some airy Malkmus-styled stuff, especially when Albertini’s vocals move into a higher register. “A Dot Running For The Dust” is a highlight of the album, and a nice display of the thoughtful, apathetic lyrics that populate the work, as the frontman muses, “We run from these places, we run from ourselves.” You get more of the same on Dromomania’s standout track “Psychomagic,” a quiet song featuring spooky, swirling guitars sitting behind a repetitive acoustic line with Albertini commenting, “This isn’t really indicative of the shape I’m in, I’m just a little bit bored.” 

While the LP’s strongest songs fall into the psych-rock and ‘90s conventions mentioned above, the moments that really made me grin were the surprising ones. The opening of “Shower Radio” falls more in the funkier stylings of The Band, a la “Cripple Creek,” than you would expect from a band coming out of Portland’s indie rock scene. It’s also nice to hear something that you really can’t place, like the weirdo shuffle track “Olaf,” or how a single song like “Feeling The Warm Hair” can entirely embody the sensation of staring out a car window on an empty highway in the morning. (Give it whirl, you’ll see what I mean.)

What’s really great about this record is how, although it strings together a hell of a lot of different influences spanning a wide time period, nothing really feels that out of place. Albertini manages to ingest a lot of varying components and vomit them out as something that’s purely his own, produced by his own (perhaps fractured) psyche—and that’s sort of what you want from an artist dealing in a genre that’s existed for fifty years—something that builds upon while acknowledging the past. Besides, it’s nice to be reminded to drop out every once in a while.