Is the Is Are, the second album from Zachary Cole Smith’s band DIIV is a music box of blurry guitar pop, evoking bygone alt-rock without ever quite becoming straight homage.
Early on, “Blue Boredom (Sky’s Song)” matches a deadpan, Kim Gordon-esque vocal turn from pop chanteuse (and Smith’s girlfriend) Sky Ferreira to a purring guitar haze that might have you filing the album alongside nostalgia-driven ‘90s alt rock. So might DIIV’s tendency to make a big deal of the Kurt factor.
But DIIV’s chilled-out — if not quite chillwave — indie rock doesn’t have that much to do with Nirvana’s cleanly written and bluntly unhappy punk songs, or with Sonic Youth’s icy, sometimes menacing experimentation. In the end, it’s not so much a product of ‘90s alt rock as it is the indie rock ‘00s.
DIIV formed in 2011, but they are, through and through, a band from ‘00s Brooklyn. Before naming his solo project after an Incesticidetrack, Smith toured with an early lineup of Beach Fossils, and lent guitar to Vincent Cacchione’s prolific, ominous Soft Black.
Is the Is Are mostly stays in that sweet spot, but it’s also much more upfront about its melodies
When DIIV released their debut Oshin, the Brooklyn indie music scene –marked with shimmering guitars, amiable rhythm, and unassuming vocals — had become a genre unto itself, and Oshin’s mumbled, percolating dream pop emerged from its wash.
But DIIV weren’t really trading in sweet, Wilsonian melody, nor were they very interested in noise or menace. Where the band’s debut shone was in its loping motorik grooves that happily flirted with Smith’s bobbing guitar, especially on the chugging “Air Conditioning” and muscular “Doused.” With its melodies loose and cloudy, and its vocals almost entirely submerged, the album found a sweet spot in the friction between Smith’s guitar and the rhythm section’s toy-like relentlessness.
Is the Is Are mostly stays in that sweet spot, but it’s also much more upfront about its melodies.
The title track ties a tireless groove and whirlpool of guitars to a topline vocal from Smith that dominates the song even when it disintegrates into a rhythmic panting. “Dust” propels itself as much by Smith’s chant as by the drums’ gloomy post-punk bop. Even interstitial fragments like “(Napa)” are built on an ebbing, flowing vocal swirl — as unintelligible as the words on Oshin, but louder.
If you prefer DIIV’s debut, this might be why: Where the band’s groove-and-float combination is singular and craveable, capable of reminding you in successive seconds of ‘90s alt rock, ‘80s jangle, and ‘60s psych, Smith’s reedy voice now fixes them more firmly in his bloggy, ‘00s-era Brooklyn.
DIIV’s groove-and-float is still there in the winkingly named closing track, “Waste of Breath,” that hands most of the song’s momentum to guitars. And Ferreira’s two-and-a-half minutes of vocal mumbling on “Blue Boredom” are hard not to enjoy — it’s cool-kid ennui given sweet, hazy backing. It’s enough to prompt the notion that Sky Ferreira should join DIIV.