It wasn’t so long ago that people were counting out “hard copy” recording formats, prognosticating that digital would reign supreme and that vinyl and cassette tapes would be on the scrap heap or, at best, fodder for flea markets and garage sales. While the LP’s resurgence in recent years has been variously chalked up to increased attention to aesthetics, desire for higher fidelity, and a pop culture trend in its own right, many still assumed that cassettes were too sonically compromised and kitschy for a comeback in their own right. But then, lo-fi indie exploded, and the landscape changed.
While Northern Spy’s first in a projected series of Clandestine Cassettes isn’t just concerned with lo-fi aesthetics, one can see why the scrappy Brooklyn import, and others like it, embrace the cassette format. It’s inexpensive, easily portable, and yes, has its own nostalgic artifact qualities. But CC#1 isn’t a novelty item: it’s a fascinating mini-sampler of Northern Spy artists, revealing an EP length recording of avant rock drone-filled soundscapes by the likes of Zaimph and Messages. There’s also “August is All,” a beautiful track of slowly evolving, minimalist yet blues-inflected improvisation by guitarist Tom Carter. A little avant folk star power is in force on “Live at Union Pool,” a reverberant duet by Loren Connors and bassist Margarida Garcia. Garcia also contributes the cassette’s artwork, which recalls homemade mixes and tape trading.
Although you can still get MP3s or FLAC, this tape’s already sold out. But rest assured, there will be more cassettes to come: from Northern Spy and elsewhere on the scene.
Already got rid of your tape deck? No worries; for now, they’re not expensive to acquire. But be warned: I recently learned from Twitter that no less a tastemaker than Steve Smithhas gotten a new Walkman. Can it be long before this microtrend explodes and cassette decks are the new iPad? Stay tuned.
After nearly a decade of silence, experimental electronica act Oval has returned in 2010 with a vengeance; and, with a spate of new releases. Although it was once a collective, now Markus Popp retains sole responsiblity for the proceedings. Earlier in the year, he released an EP entitled Oh! Today, its longer cousin, the 2xLP O, sees its much anticipated release. Add to that a second EP, Ringtone II, that’s being offered by the label for free download here.
O retains some of Popp’s previous proclivities – glitchy technobeats, strummed string sounds, drones, textural juxtapositions, and repeated-note ostinati. What’s brought to bear here most overtly is an interest in pithy forms. Indeed, the second half is called “Ringtones,” and consists of 50 miniature compositions. One can imagine more than a few experimental electronica buffs installing one of them on their smartphone stat! What’s more, there’s a relaxation of one the more extreme aspects of glitch: the avoidance of pulse seems a bit less pronounced. Rather Popp seems content to flirt with metric obfuscation, but in an overall rhythmic scheme that also embraces at least occasional phrasal regulation.
Thus, on O, Popp has created music that still has an experimental edge, but seems willing to seek rapprochement with a wider range of techno/electronica styles.
For the past five years, Richard Skelton’s music has been imbued with elegy. Since 2005, under various artistic monikers, the Lancashire, UK native has released recordings featuring his late wife’s visual art; dedicated to her memory. Even without knowledge of the weighty biographical background of these works, there’s no denying their exquisite, lonesome lyricism.
The original limited edition of Box of Birch was aptly named: it came in a hand-crafted birch wood box. While most listeners will have to content themselves with a CD, LP, or even download, the musical contents are fashioned with equally attentive care.
In the ancient spirit of the term – in the Renaissance, a broken consort was an ensemble containing instruments from more than one family – acoustic guitars, bowed strings, reeds, and pitched percussion combine in slowly evolving soundscapes. Evocative simultaneously of Celtic folk, raga, and post-minimalism, Skelton’s work has a lovely surface and creates a meditative, gently dolorous ambience.
A dozen years in, Mark Nelson’s Pan American project is still with the same label (Kranky) and still creating fascinating ambient soundscapes. But one shouldn’t mistake continuity for stagnation!
Indeed, there’s a combination of novelty and comfortable familiarity to be heard on the LP. Joined by bassists Jim Meyering and William Lowman and percussionist Steven Hess, Nelson pursues a more collaborative sound scheme than on some of his more soloistic recent recordings. Hess’s co-authorship of two of the cuts, as well as his tasteful vibraphone playing and drumming, lends an organic quality to “For Aiming at the Stars” and “Dr. Robert Goddard in a Letter to H.G. Wells, 1932.”
At the same time, there are echoes of Labradford, Nelson’s other outfit, to be found amidst the reverberant soundscapes here. “There Can Be No Thought of Finishing” and “Literally and Figuratively” feature deliciously sepulchral (and ever so well-recorded) bass drones; akin to bass-lines found on some of Labradford’s most winning work (E Luxo So, Fixed: :Content). Indeed, Meyering’s strummed chords provide a beautiful counterpart to Nelson’s treble-register harmonic pads.
“Is a Problem to Occupy Generations” demonstrates a capacity to be simultaneously ambient and experimental; its questing melodies are awash in reverb, arching towards an endpoint never quite to be reached. Conversely, the folk-like pentatonic phrases that inhabit “There is Always the Thrill of Just Beginning” seem to give the lie to much ambient-inspired “World” music, by eschewing its easily palatable background designs in favor of a more enigmatic – and far more interesting – hypnotic blurring.
Pan American remains a hardy, worthwhile endeavor; White Bird Release features some of Nelson’s most beautiful music to date.
Matt Valentine and Erika Elder (professionally MV & EE) have a tellingly named publishing concern: Child of Microtones. While the duo’s latest recording with their band the Golden Road, Drone Trailer, does indeed include drones, the music never seems static. Rather, these children of microtonality create shimmering, slowly but constantly evolving soundscapes. Some of the compositions hew closer to bona fide songs of the alt-folk variety; “The Hungry Stones” puts the sonic experimentation on the edges of the proceedings and places Valentine’s gentle singing and acoustic guitar strumming front and center. On “Weatherhead Hollow,” the singing becomes more blurred, receding from the foreground into a tapestry of keening guitars, Fender Rhodes, and slowcore rhythms.
The title tune features a fetching introduction; drones swell, pedal steel swoons, and glissandi whirl about in the cracks between the notes. This yields to a countrified psych-folk song, in which trippy singing is distressed by layers of instrumental experimentation. The album closer, “Huna Cosm,” presents arcing guitars and lap steel over a sepulchral bass ostinato in a burnished, rustic valediction.