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The Haul: Medications' Completely Removed

Medications – Completely Removed LP – Dischord, 2010 – $11 (4/10 Dischord Mail Order)

Medications' Completely Removed

The DC scene seems averse to giving out such honors, but Devin Ocampo needs a lifetime achievement award. Having first come on my radar as the drummer for Smart Went Crazy’s excellent Con Art, Ocampo soon resurfaced as the singer and guitarist for the math-rock trio Faraquet. People usually reference their lone full-length, The View from This Tower, and with good reason (it is awesome), but it was the “The Whole Thing Over” b/w “Call It Sane” single that impressed me the most. Math-rock is notoriously afraid of hooks, but Ocampo coupled the nimble guitar figures in “Call It Sane” with some brain-burrowing melodies. (It’s included on their Anthology 1997-1998 LP. Go get it.) His post-Faraquet output has been similarly impressive. Ocampo and Faraquet drummer Chad Molter formed Medications, granting Molter his own switch from the kit to (primarily) bass duties. Medications' self-titled debut EP and 2005 LP Your Favorite People, All in One Place pull Faraquet’s style in new, often opposing directions, both with more open hooks and knottier rhythms. Ocampo returned to drumming duties for Mary Timony’s excellent Ex Hex and The Shapes We Make LPs, the latter including Molter on bass. Ocampo’s involvement was exactly what Timony’s solo career needed—Ex Hex was her most memorable album since Helium’s The Magic City, grounding her songs with muscular, decidedly DC rhythms. Along with Molter, he’s now a full member of Beauty Pill, having contributed to their 2005 full-length The Unsustainable Lifestyle. Have I mentioned his production skills? I certainly will when I track down the Imperial China full-length, Phosphenes. Just give the guy a trophy already.

Three things stand out to me about Ocampo’s career: 1. He’s versatile; 2. He’s a team player; 3. He’s consistently great. When drummer/guitarists are mentioned, it’s usually Dave Grohl and Damon Che (of Don Caballero / Thee Speaking Canaries), but Ocampo’s success on both fronts is just as impressive, even if it’s grossly overlooked. Unlike Che (I’ll give Grohl some leeway for stepping in for Killing Joke’s 2003 self-titled LP), who dominates any project he’s involved in, Ocampo’s non-frontman contributions make those bands, those records better without turning them into the Devin Ocampo show. That isn’t to say Ocampo’s the only reason why Smart Went Crazy improved so much between Now We’re Even and Con Art, or why Mary Timony got her mojo back with Ex Hex, but some credit must be given. After all, Ocampo hasn’t been part of a disappointing album. When the advanced press on Completely Removed promised something notably different from Your Favorite People, I wasn’t even slightly concerned. I was excited.

This advertised difference is apparent in the line-up. Drummer Andrew Becker departs, replaced in part by “swingman” Mark Cisneros, but the bigger development is emergence of Chad Molter as a co-frontman. Ocampo and Molter trade off vocals on most tracks on Completely Removed, in practically every permutation (“Rising to Sleep” involves a trade-off on the syllable level). Unlike other multi-singer bands, there’s no sense of needing to balance the two egos, since Ocampo and Molter have been friends and collaborators long enough not to worry about such things. Instead, democracy dominates. Molter’s softer voice contrasts well with Ocampo’s ability to hold a note with unwavering intensity. I now recognize a key issue with the lifetime achievement award I just doled out to Devin Ocampo. I can’t help but feel guilty in not including Chad Molter when they’re bound so firmly at the hip. Molter’s the unsung hero of this group and this album—these songs come off as musical conversations between the two (with the occasional witty retort from Cisneros) and quoting only one side of the conversations seems silly.

Becker’s absence is felt more in the instrumental balance of the songs. Gone are the tense rhythm-driven workouts like “Twine Time” and “Opinions” from Your Favorite People. Such time signature changes and fretboard tangles have mellowed, gaining notable ease on the airy “Brasil ’07,” which trades complex chord changes for vibes and horns. As much as I love the intensity of “Surprise!” and “Pills” from Your Favorite People, that album isn’t the easiest to sit through from start to finish. In contrast, Completely Removed is a natural driving-around album for summer. The dominant elements of the songs are usually melodic guitar leads or vocal hooks, not intricate, forceful rhythms or finger-twisting guitar riffs. It’s not that those elements are completely gone—“Home Is Where We Are” reminds me of an updated take on the beloved “Call It Sane,” “Long Day” intertwines arpeggios with aplomb, and “Kilometers and Smiles” brings out some gnarly ’70s funk leads—but they fit within the songs.

This switch results in Completely Removed being deemed more “pop,” which is both true and limiting. Yes, the album is lighter, hookier, and more approachable than either of Medications' previous releases—all welcome changes. I doubt I’ll find a more repeatable stretch of songs than the opening quartet of “For WMF,” “Long Day,” “Seasons,” and “We Could Be Others” this year. Yet my most basic idea of pop music—as something geared to appeal to a broad audience—doesn’t quite fit here. Medications’ songs are more polished and catchier, but they’re still remarkably cerebral. Take the title track, for example. Ocampo sings, “I’m removed / If not hidden from view… completely removed” and “I wish that I was open / and I wish that I did care,” lines that seem to explore his/their acknowledged distance from the crowd. “We Could be Others” calls back to these lines with its chorus of “We could be open / We could be sober / We can be others I know,” but ends it with “It’s too late / It’s too long.” That’s the tension of Completely Removed: making steps toward the middle, being comfortable with your new position, yet still recognizing that you don’t quite belong. That’s not the sole topic of these songs—“Brasil ’07” is quite the love song for Ocampo’s wife—but I can’t hear “as my human crimes wear thin on you” in “Long Day” without pondering the need to specify “human.”

Being too cerebral for true pop standing shouldn’t be viewed as a negative. Too often I struggle to explain why exactly I go off the beaten path to find new music, especially when I’m talking with people who are content to stick to the pop songs they know and love. But Completely Removed is the perfect example of the rewards of this pursuit. Its combination of hooks and smarts won’t lose its luster once the initial rush has gone away, since the lyrics and arrangements are so richly layered. This is why I follow musicians like Devin Ocampo and Chad Molter, why I’m continually impressed by the ways they evolve as musicians and adapt to fit new surroundings. It’s also why I wouldn’t mind seeing at least one of these guys get an enormous trophy for their efforts.