When Will Wiesenfeld released his first Pop Music/False B-Sides collection in 2011, the two halves of its title seemed to cancel each other out. He hadn’t released any actual Baths singles, for starters, and the songs, which came from the sessions that birthed his remarkable debut Cerulean, certainly didn’t feel like lesser offerings. But the word “pop” hinted at ambitions outside the Los Angeles beatmakers’ community that had been Baths’ home up to that point. The ensuing years haven’t dimmed Wiesenfeld’s enthusiasm for percussive arrhythmia, but pure songcraft has slowly taken priority in his work. By 2017, his ear for hooks had grown so sharp that he could literally write a theme song (for a “dad dating simulator,” natch) and it didn’t feel all that out of character. Now, as Baths ushers in its second decade, the title of Pop Music/False B-Sides II comes to feel oddly appropriate: it’s an assemblage of scattered instrumentals turned into pop songs might as well pass for the actual fourth Baths album.
The coherence of Pop Music/False B-Sides II is all the more remarkable given how it draws from a much deeper hard drive than its predecessor. The source material dates as far back as 2013, some of it initially intended for Baths, others for Wiesenfeld’s ambient-leaning Geotic project. Wiesenfeld only recently added lyrics to these “renewed ideas and sketches,” and so without any kind of chronological ordering or thematic ties to serve as clues to their origins, Pop Music/False B-Sides II functions as a sort of alternate-history glimpse into his evolution.
The metallic undertow of “Veranda Shove” suggests a timestamp around 2013’s Obsidian, as does the oblong lurch and silvery, filtered percussion on “Be That” and “Sex.” If so, Wiesenfeld is revisiting them in a much healthier place, eschewing Obsidian’s graphic accounts of body horror and romantic dysfunction for tempered sensuality. The propulsive skittering of “Tropic Laurel” (an ostensible update of 2011’s “Nordic Laurel”) and “Immerse” are cast in the image of Romaplasm’s RPG fantasias and reframed as something more immediate and emotionally legible. “Wistful (Fata Morgana)” scales the IMAX-scoped “Ocean Death” down into a portrait of seaside longing, and the handful of instrumentals cast Geotic’s increasing path towards sylvan dream-pop converging with that of Baths.
Pop Music/False B-Sides also presents a case for Baths’ role in the greater trajectory of what used to be called “lap-pop.” There are still hints of Cerulean’s formative influences—the dreamy IDM of Dntel, Four Tet’s early folktronica phase, Fennesz at his friendliest, the lopsided bump and grind of Donuts. But Baths has existed long enough to influence on others, honing qualities that have become immediately identifiable: The acoustic guitars or keyboards processed to sound like player pianos, Wiesenfeld’s telltale usage of ripe verbiage like “anoint,” “evergreen,” “appendices.” Even at his most pop-focused, Wiesenfeld continues to work outside of a percussive grid, mimicking the occasional grace of human movement, at other times, its more common gangly gait; in the case “Be That,” the ex post facto songwriting process shows its limitations, as Wiesenfeld can’t keep pace with its cumbersome, staggering cadences.
“Be That” is immediately followed by “The Stones,” the lengthiest and warmest Baths song to date—“I still trust that men can be lovely/do what you like but do it to me,” Wiesenfeld sings on the final line, a sentiment that feels accessed after years of struggle. A pity that Pop Music/False B-Sides II waits until its final two songs to start trying new things, as what precedes it piles onto Baths’ existing catalog rather than exploring new depths or vistas. It’s a testament to Wiesenfeld’s artistry that the difference between the “almosts” featured here and his most beloved songs isn’t always immediately perceptible, but on a “heads only” type of release, it might be more revelatory to hear the ideas that were too outre for a Baths album; does he have another “Dream Daddy” lying around? But it’s worth noting that on the same day Wiesenfeld released Pop Music/False B-Sides II as the inaugural title on his new label Basement’s Basement, he reissued the first collection as well—before Wiesenfeld embarks on a new beginning, he wanted to show us how far he’s come.