Sunday, January 09, 2005

Odes to cities

Mark Nelson has been ploughing a very quiet furrow of excellence for a long time now, hushed reverence abounding whenever his projects release a new recording, although sales remain low as ever for mordant pensive noir like that of his band Labradford, and lower for his excellent solo-project Pan American, half the subject matter of this, a further foray into the top records of 2004. Quiet City comes #1 in The Trading Standards favourite albums - it is the sound of a somnambulist in the city, a flaneur lost after dusk, waiting for the dawn in a quiet corner, listening to the traffic ebb and flow on the outskirts, the waft of music out of basements, the heavy, slow electricity in the air that fills the lungs and makes everything feel tinted with magic.

Shunning the processing and loop heavy musique concrete of The River Made No Sound, Nelson brings in washes of muted flugelhorns and trumpets, the midnight groan of a jazzy double bass, along with two melancholy, reverb-tinged guitars to accompany the computers and the glitches - opener 'Below' and the wonderful centrepiece 'Skylight' - a testament to a keen ear, the ability to represent filmic images with sound - the meandering jazzy crack of the drums, Charles Kim's breathing, human bass, all floating on a very real city at night - any city with a quiet part, dimming lights on the horizon, the empty warehouses on the edge of town. A genuine triumph of ambient music - engaging, realistic, human and beautiful.


More difficult to place in a regular context is Fennesz's latest release on Touch, the follow-up to his meisterwork (Endless Summer) is Venice, mostly recorded on location in that fair city, the artwork showing a weather-beaten city staring back defiantly. Unending curlicues of sound, their source difficult to pinpoint how it was made, and always mutating and opening doors into new permutations and perceptions - as far away from popular music as one can travel before opening the door to pretention and avant for avant's sake, Fennesz's music strikes at the heart, despite not always being fully aware of what is being implied or what is being asked, as a listener.

'Chateau Rouge' puts Fennesz on a level above contemporary soundscapers and glitch artists, but on tracks like 'Rivers of Sand', or the achingly beautiful 'Transit', sung by David Sylvain, new territory is eviscerated, explored, and new standards are set. Fennesz takes the form of abstract composition, and gives it a backbone, a genuine frame of reference for the experienced electro fan, and a relative newcomer such as the people I exposed to this record. Noises swell and dissipate, hearts fluttering at every seemingly perfunctory twist of a dial, wringing nuances out of a seemingly impentrable sound with expert ease. The amount of soundalikes that sprang up in the wake of his previous record showed his increasing accesibility as a guitarist/electro artist. Whoever follows Fennesz into Venice is a brave man indeed.

Fennesz online
Pan American on


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