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n 1998 I walked into Kim's Underground Music on St. Mark's, virtually caffeinated with excitement over Christian Fennesz' Fennesz Plays EP and desperate to find anything else remotely comparable in the way it trained electronic music’s lens onto the more human contexts of acoustic instruments and popular song. Fennesz Plays maintained just the right amount of adoration and suspicion, the comfort of familiarity without the dogma, the tempered harmonic rigidity. On this particular day one of Kim’s always-reliable indie-fascists pointed me in the direction of an obscure little offering just in from Chicago. This limited edition (500) 3” CD was packaged in accounting ledger paper with a faintly typed "apestaartje" across the front. The photocopied graph-paper insert endearingly hid any further information in poetry…
anderegg antique acrylic jargon
a silent partner conversation on purpose
n/a (s) weat er weat (h) er
…and included an address for apestaartje, the label Brendan Anderegg helped to found (now based in both Chicago and New York), and which has since released works by Aero, Minamo, i-sound, Martin Arnold remixes of Fennesz, Akira Rabelais, Pimmon, Steven Roden, and others.
Hearing that apestaartje’s Anderegg had recently cast his two cents into the psych-folk fray and was releasing a record on the intriguingly hermetic Psych-O-Path Records, piqued my curiosity. [The Psych-O-Path compilation v/a - Space Is No Place Vol.2 - NYC: Noise from the Underground is worth getting your paws on, featuring great noise tracks from Chuck Bettis & Toshio Kajiwara, Tan as Fuck, and Jah Division; also the Voice Crack-meets-Boredoms LP by Terrestrial Tones (Animal Collective’s Dave “Avey” Portner and Black Dice’s Eric Copeland).]
Expecting an electro-acoustic take on the MV & EE Medicine Show, I was intrigued to hear the record unfold with “The Open,” which I would swear is Pita covering the overture to U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name." However, each of the 10 following songs display neither the subtle humor the opening suggests, nor remarkable facility with any of the basic tools required to pull off a songwriting record (avant or otherwise). The reach of the arrangements significantly over-extend their grasp, the songwriting is almost uniformly bland, and the songs stylistically shamble from Hail to the Thief to 4-track Postal Service to Bedhead unplugged, and are sprinkled throughout with a seemingly forced, ironic set of production values that do nothing but disservice to the songs’ perceived intents—all of this with an un-endearing amateurishness of composition and execution. This music is fragility at its most embarrassing, dragged down in no small measure by the vocals of Cory Gray (who I believe, but cannot confirm, is the same Cory Gray who sings and plays piano for the brooding Portland “emo” band, Desert City Soundtrack).
Vocals in pop music are rather more resistant to criticism than compositions due to the very personal, subjective responses we all have to other human voices. It would hardly be productive for me to complain at length about the singing, which strikes me in its darkest moments as a forced alt-Americana cartoon from teenage suburbia and (in more rambunctious moments) as They Might Be Giants' John Flansburgh striving for the impassioned delivery of any recent nu-metal power ballad. But it does bear mentioning, especially because of the almost complete lack of a single memorable melodic line, and an insistence on doubling the vocals on almost every line without apparent respect for the timbral requirements or dynamic contours of the songs.
There are some individually lovely musical bits: piano numbers that echo Thymme Jones’ “While,” fine Pink Moon-influenced (and somewhat lifted) finger-style guitar compositions. In context of the record, however, every such slightly more direct and stylized instrumental moment comes off as pandering to a folk old-guard’s standard of quality and legitimacy, and makes little other sense on a record with a fatal identity crisis. Given Anderegg’s otherwise good musical intuitions it is curious that the songwriting, arrangements, cute-and-small rhythm tracks play it so straight. The songwriting and engineering reside on the weak end of the pedestrian home recording front. Low-fi banjos clash with well-recorded guitars. MIDI strings spar with over-compressed acoustic viol overdubs with patent purposelessness. On a few songs, as with “Off To The Side,” micro-sampled junk percussion and tapped banjo samples are sequenced to create a rhythmic backdrop for a fine canopy of droning organs, vibes and string-grinding E-Bows; nice earthy textures with teeth. But the regrettable bulk of the material sounds carelessly cobbled together and uninspired.
I have no interest in hurling dismissive invective like beach balls at a Polyphonic Spree show, a coward’s sport. I prefer to champion. The last thing I want to do is step on a labor of love by someone I respect recording with limited means and releasing with limited availability. Taking chances is good. An inability to recognize your abilities from inabilities, what you have to say from what you don’t have to say, is significantly “less good.”
The prime quality of apestaartje's curatorial agenda that I have always deeply admired is its apparently mission-bound devotion to pastoral electro-acoustics of the messy, timbral, non-academic laptop variety. Anderegg's releases, from that very first 3" I picked up through to the more recent anomia, blend acoustic guitars and pianos in a way that appeals to the heart, but always through an unexpected back door achieved via the timbral vocabulary and non-linear syntax particular to computer music. Apestaartje’s best releases exist as retellings of instrumental arias, an outsider's heartfelt forensic sketch. I remember the first time it hit me in an art class that defending DeKooning's pure abstractions on the grounds that he could in fact draw well was, if intended with sincerity, a wrong-headed, backwards and insulting defense (light bulbs above my head!)—it is not necessary for Fennesz or Keith Rowe to have facility with such things as harmony or classical technique. When musical abstractions such as previous Anderegg-related releases are ghetto-ized into a small electronic community I suppose it must be tempting to find a way to reach a larger audience, "to get right down to earth in a language that everybody here can easily understand." Some outsiders can pull it off and have something to say in both worlds. With Falling Air as evidence, Anderegg shows himself to speak this language with too ponderous and embarrassing an accent to take very seriously and has better things to say in what I take, based on his prior catalog, to be an inexhaustible native tongue.
Reviewed by: William S. Fields
Reviewed on: 2005-04-06
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