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Deerhunter, ‘Microcastle’ (Kranky)

Deerhunter’s name implies aggression and brutality, but even at their loudest, the Atlanta band’s music possesses a bewildered fragility that suggests they identify more closely with the innocent creature caught in the crosshairs. Lanky, waifish leaderBradford Cox often seems passive and exposed within his own songs, as if he could be blown away by the next wave of sound, whether it’s a blaring drone or a gentle hum. There’s an intense physical sensation in all of Deerhunter’s material, a constant feeling that outside forces are acting upon the singer, and by extension, the listener as well.

Since Deerhunter released their breakthrough album Cryptograms early last year, Cox has recorded enough music under the alias Atlas Sound to merit his own retrospective box set. The tracks, most available for free on the Deerhunter blog, range from dub and ambient experiments to punk-rock piss-takes to tributes to assorted alternative icons. The quality varies, but Cox’s apparent obsession with emulating the sprawling discographies of his musical heroes (Brian Eno, in particular) highlights his aesthetic of reverential fandom. Deerhunter wear their influences proudly but avoid straight pastiche, creating a distinct hybrid of androgynous shoegazer buzz, driving krautrock pulse, serene drones, and low-key indie pop that sounds both ingratiatingly familiar and slightly alien.

Where Cox’s Atlas Sound output is scattered and eclectic, Microcastle, Deerhunter’s third album, is focused and consistent. Guitarist Lockett Pundt contributes more than ever, cowriting the woozily surging “Little Kids” and providing lead vocals on “Agoraphobia” and “Neither of Us, Certainly.” The latter, which sets a disturbing plea for erotic asphyxiation to a languid, summery ballad, ranks among the group’s finest efforts. While Cox’s solo excursions can be too ethereal to leave a lasting impression, Microcastle‘s best songs are boldly dynamic (thanks largely to the rhythm section of bassist Josh Fauver and drummer Moses Archuleta), yet never compromise the band’s gentle spirit.

Themes of ennui and isolation are present in the majority of Cox’s work, and those feelings are especially acute here. The album’s two most compelling songs — the uncharacteristically perky “Never Stops” and the hard-charging epic “Nothing Ever Happened” — set lyrics about feeling trapped by boredom to an ecstatic rush of sound that pushes against the singer’s helpless desperation, while also simulating the sort of transcendental experience that he seems to crave.

On “Saved by Old Times,” Microcastle’s spacey, almost bluesy climax, Cox muses about being captured by Victorian vampires before repeating the title asa comforting mantra, which could be interpreted as Deerhunter’s passionately felt manifesto: The only way to escape the world’s monotonous grip is to embrace imagination and creativity,and allow the art that inspires you to become your salvation.