Plainspeak

by Aaron Roche & Tim Hinck (2010, Sounds Are Active)

I’m often amazed and humbled at the number of musicians who e-mail and ask me to check out and write about their music. One thing this means is that I have a pretty steady influx of new and interesting music. Unfortunately, it also means that those e-mails sometimes get lost in the deluge. Which brings me to Aaron Roche.

Roche originally e-mailed me back in early February concerning Plainspeak, his collaboration with Tim Hinck (as well as members of Lambchop and Silver Jews). We’re now approaching the end of March and I’m finally giving Plainspeak a spin—you can listen to the entire album on Aaron Roche’s Bandcamp page—and I’m kicking myself for having waited so long. You see, this is sublimely gorgeous stuff. The Sounds Are Active blurb claims that the duo “have taken folk and modern classical music to another dimension entirely” and I’m inclined to believe it.

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Owl Splinters

by Deaf Center (2011, Type Records)

Dark ambient music functions a lot like horror movies in that the most effective titles are often those that are the quietest and subtlest. Ultra-bloody torture porn might seem like the epitome of the genre given how horrific it is. However, many of the great horror films—e.g., The Innocents, The Haunting, The Shining—rely more on atmosphere and ambiguity than shock; these engage the viewer’s mind in a way that mere sadism can’t and won’t. And so it is with dark ambient music.

You’d think that the louder, creepier, and more horrific the sounds employed, the more effective a dark ambient album will be. And true, there are many artists working in the genre that employ sounds—e.g., discordant machine noises, ominous percussion, disembodied and twisted voices, low frequency drones—that are fully intent on drawing the listener down into a black audio abyss. (Lustmord, one of the genre’s most well-known and influential proponents, is a prime example of this approach.)

Now, I like abyssal expanses of unrelenting sonic blackness as much as the next discerning listener. But sometimes, such music simply sounds like it’s trying too hard. With their latest full-length Owl Splinters, Deaf Center—the Norwegian duo of Erik Skodvin and Otto Totland—take a decidedly different approach, and show how being quieter and subtler can prove more impactful and haunting than any barrage of monstrous or terrifying sounds.

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Psychic Temple

by Chris Schlarb (2010, Asthmatic Kitty)

Chris Schlarb—whom you might recognize from his work with I Heart Lung and the Sounds Are Active label—spent over 1,000 hours and 19 months working on the four tracks that make up his Psychic Temple release. That becomes quickly apparent in the opening minutes of “I Can Live Forever If I Slowly Die”, which opens the album with an expansive and atmospheric palette of ghostly voices, scattered drumming, meandering brass, and sterling guitar.

Although at first blush it might seem completely random and directionless—a most sedate form of chaos, if you will—Schlarb and his 29(!) collaborators, which include Mike Watt (Minutemen), Mick Rossi (Philip Glass Ensemble), DM Stith, and Dave Easley (Brian Blade Fellowship), have created a meticulously crafted album that straddles the lines between jazz, folk, and psychedelia.

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All Delighted People EP

by Sufjan Stevens (2010, Asthmatic Kitty)

Raise your hand if you saw this coming, because I sure didn’t. Earlier this month, Sufjan Stevens announced an October/November tour—an announcement that I admittedly didn’t pay much attention to because he’s not really coming anywhere close to my neck of the woods (and I just don’t have much time for concertgoing these days). And what’s more, I’d become a little Sufjan’d out, particularly after the indulgent BQE.

And then Asthmatic Kitty broke the news: a nearly hour-long EP of brand new material that was free for the listening (and that could be had for a nominal fee). The promise of new music from the man was too much to pass up—the old Sufjan fan inside of me dies hard, I guess—and so I hoofed it on over to Bandcamp to check out All Delighted People. And suffice to say, I’m hanging my head in shame, for I should not have let my faith in the man slip. (If that makes me sound like a fanboy, then so be it.)

At first blush, All Delighted People seems like classic Sufjan. It’s sprawling and epic, musically and thematically, but quite poignant and intimate at the same time. However, careful listening will reveal subtle breaks from the Sufjan releases of yore. For starters, the production is thinner in places, even brittle. Sufjan’s inimitable arrangements are compressed and more surface-level, which means the EP sounds more “in your face”, relatively speaking. Which seems apt because musically speaking, this is some of the most adventurous music that Sufjan has put to tape yet.

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In Sea Remixes

by Various Artists (2010, Silber Records)

I’ll come right out and say it: I’m not a big fan of remixes. I understand the need and desire to pay some homage to music that you find inspiring and beautiful. And given our society’s predilection for recontextualizing and reiterating pop culture in general, remixing sort of seems to be the post-modern de rigueur thing to do. But maybe I subscribe too heavily to the auteur idea for artists in general, that the vision put forth by the original artist is the authoritative one—that it’s canon, if you will—and that other versions are, therefore, pretenders to the throne.

That’s one huge generalization, of course, and I don’t mean to whitewash all remixes in existence, nor do I intend to dismiss those with mad remixing skills. But again, generally speaking, if I have to choose between picking up an album of remixes, and getting an album of brand new material—either by the remixer(s) or the remixee(s)—new material will win out almost every time. I yearn for something new, something fresh, something original—and remixes just never quite leave me satisfied beyond the initial piquing of curiosity.

Which brings us to In Sea Remixes, a collection of remixes of Aarktica’s In Sea. And in addition to my normal dislike of remixes, I was especially anxious regarding this particular collection, for two reasons.

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