Secret Colors: Playing On Prefix

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Playing on Prefix is a feature on KCRW’s Music Blog in which writers from the eclectic music site Prefix hip you to what’s coming out of their computer speakers each week.

Beach Boys went on their first “Surfing Safari”, summer has demanded a soundtrack.  Unfortunately for us, Brian Wilson’s utopian vision of a “Surfin’ USA” has proved less than prophetic — tunes about the simple joys of catching a wave and hanging ten just don’t hit home for everyone. This is especially true here in DC where the dog days only fetch heat waves, greenhouse humidity, and swarms of mosquitoes.  Here we don’t wax our boards and hit the beach; we douse ourselves in Off! and sit on the porch. That’s where Secret Colors comes in.

Though hailing from the temperate climes of Seattle, this one-man act headed by Matt Lawson makes music ideal for sweating through the sweltering evenings in the south. A 2010 tape release Dreamersss — currently available for free downloads on Bandcamp — marks the epitome of the band’s hazy, blissed-out approach to the seasonal anthem. While Lawson takes sonic cues from shimmering guitar groups like Real Estate and Ducktails, he doesn’t so much write songs as he creates “vibes.” Each track languidly unfolds with a mix of ambling percussion, gently warped synthesizer, and fuzzy guitar lines that buzz like power lines in the heat.

Listen to the golden drones and pulsing bass on the opening track “Hammock Vibe” and you can easily picture yourself vegetating on the porch sipping ice tea and watching the sunset. Even if you’re currently cooped up in a florescent-lit office, pop this cut on and you can practically smell the clouds of citronella wafting by. The rest of the run time continues in much the same way, balancing long satisfying stretches of ambience with just enough color and melody to keep from becoming wallpaper.

Stream “Hammock Vibe”

Even the liveliest track — “Board Walk,” a jaunty guitar number that wouldn’t be out of place on a Rangers’ album — wont’ disturb your tranquil irie with too much fussy energy. Another stand out, “Beach Haze,” gently builds from a wind chime twinkle before a fuzzy synth and marimba melody takes over easing the song into tropical-tingled lullaby. Think of it as 50s exotica for the cassette-label era.

It’s actually not a huge leap to connect “Dreamersss” with that largely forgotten genre. Exotica composers like Martin Denny and Les Baxter were attempting to create the feel of an imagined Polynesia through carefully crafted tropical ersatz.

It is music with a function; a tool meant to transform any setting into a equatorial paradise. Similarly the music of Secret Colors has the power to redefine a setting, turning the act of sitting in the heat into a sublimely relaxing experience. With the band’s meandering sounds filling the humid air everything begins feeling pleasantly warped and distorted — it’s like the seeing the world through the wavering corona that hovers over sun-baked pavement.

If you still haven’t figured out the headspace Lawson is aiming for, the final track, “Spliff Ceremony” should be a tip off.  Slowly coasting by over eight minutes the track gradually distorts and dissolves letting the listener drift off, empty ice tea in hand. There’s just no better way to wind down a late August gathering.

— Peter Timko