Sandwiched on the Matador roster between indie rock heavyweights like Interpol, Mogwai and Yo La Tengo, it is easy to understand why Dead Meadow received disappointingly little attention for their previous album, the strong “Shivering King and Others,” released in 2003. But on the bright side, they carry less baggage and are burdened by fewer expectations then their larger-than-life label-mates. As a result, Dead Meadow’s new album “Feathers” is a fresh start of sorts — better yet, it is the Washington D.C. band’s first thoroughly produced and promoted album. Built up of highly textured, sedate, psychedelic soundscapes that resemble My Bloody Valentine or pre-“Wall” Pink Floyd, “Feathers” is challenging, sometimes monotonous, but ultimately a beautiful record.
On their previous albums, Dead Meadow refined an innovative melange of beefy, fuzzed-out ’60s blues-rock melded to dreamy, shoe-gazing song structures. But “Feathers” starts off heavy with “Let’s Jump In,” sounding like Led Zeppelin’s “How Many More Times” slowed down to a glacial crawl. The song is both driving and unfathomably spacious, with well-orchestrated cosmic guitar bursts panning in and out of the mix, leading up to an exhilarating Black Sabbath-inspired finale. Despite the Zep link, it is quickly apparent that vocalist and guitarist Jason Simon is just about the polar opposite of Robert Plant, singing in a subdued, high-pitched and wistful drone.
The album quickly descends into a slew of ethereal, acoustic space-rock numbers that are almost completely devoid of heaviness or immediacy. Bass-driven buildups and stunning moments are subtly scattered throughout — but the band’s fluent instrumental jams are the most rewarding. At times, the expertly crafted soundscapes recall works by psychedelic, futuristic bands like Spacemen 3 or even Sonic Youth (especially 1998’s “A Thousand Leaves” or 2002’s “Murray Street”).
Little of the first half is immediately catchy or particularly memorable until “At her Open Door,” which combines a beautiful vocal melody with a sublime slide-guitar outro (think of Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying”) courtesy of newcomer Cory Shane. “Stacy’s Song” is also strong, anchored by prominent vocal harmonies and echoing guitar interjections that instantly recall Pink Floyd.
What is most disappointing about the album overall is that the band seemingly jumped the gun in their stylistic evolution. Dead Meadow was on the verge of a breakthrough, as “Shivering King and Others” suggested, had they found the persistence to simply fine-tune their already spectacular, raunchy blues. But though “Feathers” ends up with a tasty and well-executed new sound, their song-writing hasn’t quite caught up. Simon’s subtle voice is often lost in the drone, whereas his singing over more minimalist and angular blues creates a unique, contrasting aesthetic. In fact, the album’s great shortcoming is its unvarying drone: A few additional heavier songs, a little more drama or song-writing dynamism would have made “Feathers” a classic.
It is on the album’s closer, “Through the Gates of the Sleepy Silver Door” (enigmatically also labeled as “Untitled”), that Dead Meadow realizes its potential. Mind-blowing and lumbering, the 13-minute epic matches the mystique and tension of classic juggernauts like Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” and Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”. The song happens to be a reworking of an older cut from 2001, but an infusion of greatly improved drumming, soaring wah-wah freak-outs and a memorable bass-driven riff beneath the chaos makes the track oh-so satisfying. And to boot, the band shows its aptitude for post-rock texture and crescendo (a la Mogwai) during a brief mid-song cool-down. “Sleepy Silver Door” is by far Dead Meadow’s best work.
Despite the minor limitations of “Feathers,” the album’s intricate psychedelic textures are easily enjoyable — so good, in fact, that it doesn’t necessarily demand herbal supplements. Needless to say, Dead Meadow is a promising band with an impressive and original sonic vocabulary, and their eloquence easily transcends the trappings of stoner-rock.