Pill Wonder






Pill Wonder is the synergetic style hybrid moniker of William Murdoch from Seattle, his debut Jungle/Surf is envisioned over a two-year span and released in October 2010 on Underwater Peoples Records back when the skillful producer was a 22-year-old bedroom musician. Using this moniker, Murdoch comes up with eight short tracks – or vignettes rather – of the flamboyant kind, charged with surf guitars, hypnotizing vocals, blissful hooks and nostalgic pastiches. The auspicious album title should warm the heart of any Exotica fan, and while Jungle/Surf does not target the Exotica crowd, a genre that is neither mentioned by the record label nor the artist himself, it shares many stylistic ingredients and is, I believe, worth anyone's while who has successfully made the jump from the vintage material of the late 50's and early 60's to the Lounge-focused resurrection of the mid-90's.


Many ideas are woven into the short critters. From a conceptual viewpoint, Pill Wonder is far more keen on the Surf part of the title rather than the Jungle panoramas, but this is no flaw per se. In fact, assigning the artist a narrow focus on surf mentalities is no correct assertion either, for he breaks the rhythms, shifts the tempo and unleashes waves of post-processing effects, thus making the end product deliberately blurry, misty, and yes, even psychedelic, with the aural sun being able to shimmer through ad infinitum. It is a fierce take on the nostalgia layering technique. In this regard, Pill Wonder's debut is much more similar to The Avalanches' sample opus Since I Left You (2000) or Tipsy's mosaic Uh-Oh! (2001), albeit much more centered on cohesion. In addition, Jungle/Surf is never too much over the top, Murdoch does not unleash many counteracting and incompatible sounds for their own sake, but tries to create harmony and catchiness out of chaos. So without much further ado, here is a closer look at an exciting – and potentially accidental – take on the Neo-Exotica escapism.


The opening vignette is called Fogg Eater, a post-Calypso swamp ditty full of Space-Age flutes, sun-coated acoustic guitars, croaking percussion aortas and bone-dry vibraphones. The Latinized but English mixed choir sings along to the scintillating music box glints. It is not even a real choir, but pieced together of threefold incarnations of William Murdoch's voice. It is quite hard to describe the distinctive mood of Fogg Eater. The fogg has indeed been swallowed, the luminescence of the layer-related interplay is wondrously dazzling, the feeling is much more Caribbean than Polynesian. The short duration adds to the feeling of time compression, everything quirky happens quickly. The following What We Know almost crosses the mark of three minutes and focuses on the jungular side of things: a multifaceted field recording of frogs, elephants, apes, leopards and birds of paradise serves as the emerald-green backdrop for a delicately straightforward beat scheme complete with frizzling maracas of big granularity, glowing surf guitars and muffled vocals in arpeggiated states. What We Know is catchy, euphonious and the ultimate blending of the two fields of carefreeness as depicted in the album title. An exotic tune that does not feel rushed rather than harmoniously worked out in an easygoing fashion.


Up next is Being Bored, another anthemic Surf Rock brute that is on the cusp of many other vintage genres. Particles such as glistening glockenspiels traverse by, diffuse classic drum kit percussion, eerie washes of dissonant organs and psychedelic guitar licks draped in golden shimmers work well with Murdoch's uplifting vocals. Wishing Whale then ventures to a shaker-heavy Beatles groove with slightly more acidic yet amicably distorted guitars. The aqueous droplets of wind chimes, the jocular handclaps as well as the horribly overdriven vocals coalesce with the aurally invoked sunscape. It's Surf Rock for the Atomic Age, the melodies are strangely hazy due to the ground loop-resembling distortion filters. Only the coruscating chimes tower above the portentous vortex of 60's psychedelia.


Wasted By The Screen is the perfect example of a vintage Surf Rock theme at first, with sizzling-hot guitar twangs and laissez-faire vocals, but the cacophonously doodling plastic flutes, highly echoey screams and duskily bubbling distortion drones elevate this tune into the Post-Rock dimension and create another exciting blending of diversity. The permanent oscillation between piercing clarity and blurred opacity make this seem like an imbalanced gallimaufry, but the result is strangely coherent and focused. Gone To The Market then is the figurative icing on the cake… a cake that is already a sugar bomb of the syrupy kind. A saccharine guitar riff is entangled with glockenspiels and chimes before it shifts its shape and becomes a distorted mirage of strumming guitars. The song's climax is reached at its cusp, right in the middle when whitewashed streams of legato noise erupt and then make room for a vibraphone segue, the melody still being intact. Ooh-ooh chants, slivers of Far Eastern tone sequences on the aforementioned vibes and a public service announcement bell round off this artifact of oozing glee.


The next tune Family Vacation is then supercharged with pleasant anticipation and bucolic nostalgia. Opening with a kaleidoscope of languorous layers full of muffled field recordings in a park with frolicking children, hypnotizing guitar spirals of shelter-and-snugness as well as polyphonous vocal strata that mesh with majestic whistles, chimes and handclaps, Family Vacation is the positively lachrymose centerpiece of Jungle/Surf. The euphoria rises in the second half and is fueled by enthralling chants and the rise of voluminosity. Tending more to the surf side of life or an aural travelog than a jungle setting, it may not be the perfect Exotica track, but intertwines all the ingredients and specks of the preceding material. The final piece is called When I Look Back which turns out to be a short reel of aqueous ocean waves, surf guitar pluckings that resemble a laid-back jam session and William Murdoch's boldly reverberated vocals which are underpinned by a whistling electric piano, ending the short album in the appropriate way: with cozy warmth and genuine gentleness.


Pill Wonder's Jungle/Surf bubbles, boasts and foams, but what seems like an uncontrolled hodgepodge of one too many ideas, stylistic tributes and dedicated homages becomes a crafty, vigorous object of greenery and yellowness. Rarely is an album title as poignant and encapsulating as William Murdoch's vision of a surfer's attitude which is then married with the adventurous thickets of a lush jungle. The album tends much more to Surf Rock mannerisms, and I for one would have loved a prominent use of bongos droplets or conga blebs, regardless of whether they are real or programmed, but apart from this jungle-nurturing omission, Jungle/Surf is an ultra-short spectacle, instantly accessible, loaded with elastically morphing arabesques, always fathoming out the next unison of transfiguring vocals and blazing sunbursts. The various filters which are applied to the vocals change their characteristic traits: from doubling or tripling a sole voice over magnanimous amounts of hall effects to hazy moirés, these production techniques purposefully blur the comprehension and translucency of the lyrics. They become harder to understand, are deep within the layers or too high above them to catch their drift. While they never sound ghostly or spectral, they carry nostalgia, melancholia and sometimes even melodrama with them, sound and voice reciprocate their respective meaning.


At the end of the day – any day – Jungle/Surf is no dedicated Exotica album in the classical sense, but shares quite a lot of the genre's diverse particularities and peculiarities. Field recordings, beach sceneries, vibraphones plus related mallet instruments, roaring leopards in tandem with trumpeting elephants as well as catchy guitar riffs and plinking percussion prowess make this short LP a welcome infusion of Neo-Exotica with a glaring Surf Rock attitude. Vintage fans are not specifically targeted, and since this is no actual vintage album, this clientele might possibly be bewildered due to its dynamics, shifting segues and effect-heavy Dub remainders. In any way, Jungle /Surf provides a short shot of colorful memories, no pills required.


Further listening and reading:

  • You can purchase and listen to Jungle/Surf in full at Bandcamp and other big music stores.
  • Follow Pill Wonder/William Murdoch on Twitter: @PillWonder


Exotica Review 218: Pill Wonder – Jungle/Surf (2010). Originally published on May 18, 2013 at AmbientExotica.com.