Eight years after Broken Ear Record, Black Dice's final full-length for DFA, Eric Copeland has returned to the label that released some of his band's earliest (and arguably finest) records. Copeland, who originally joined Black Dice in the group's long-ago days as a punk band, has released solo records for several years now, but has lately been on a serious tear of productivity. In 2012, he released two particularly strong full-lengths: Limbo and Waco Taco Combo, both of which presented noisy yet relatively straightforward slices of the scatterbrained, often difficult realm of psychedelic noise coming from the Black Dice camp. In many ways, Copeland's new album, Joke in the Hole, is stylistically in keeping with the dissonant, psychedelic whimsy of those records, but it is undoubtedly the most upbeat and easily listenable installment of his latest output.
Fringe though Copeland may be, this album is a serious coup for DFA—he walks the line between complete nuttiness and outright accessibility, and ends up with one of his best records to date. In what feels like a major change, Copeland maintains a buoyant atmosphere for an entire album. Last month's loopily engaging 11-minute single "Masterbater" gave an idea of what to expect; in his current mode, Copeland sculpts twisted approximations of dub and dance grooves that, more than ever, resemble bona fide party tracks.
It's tempting to take the record's relentless affability with a grain of salt, but Copeland seems genuinely eager to please, and Joke in the Hole really is fun to listen to. "Flushing Meats" clusters cheery, pitch-shifted samples around a 4/4 beat, which creates a deeply disorienting yet pleasing effect. The marimba-heavy "Cheap Treat" and the harried, horn-inflected house of "Grapes" sound like they'd make great 12-inch singles—as much as any of the thoroughly odd Black Dice singles do, anyway.
Still, the album is not totally without the challenges that longtime Copeland/Black Dice listeners have come to expect. With "Shoo Rah," for instance, the listener can, depending on where his or her attention drifts, opt to listen to one of two different, seemingly incongruous songs occurring at the same time. And even during the record's most overtly fun moments, the music has a precarious, disquieting feeling to it, as if it could collapse into a lurching, more sinister-feeling headspace at any time.
Joke in the Hole is an unusually infectious outing for an artist whose recent work with Black Dice, although intermittently catchy, remains as unrelentingly challenging as it's ever been. Making a record like this was a risk of sorts, but it's certainly paid off—Joke in the Hole provides lots to chew on and even more to jam out on.