City Centre Offices
he dirty secret of much of what gets called ambient music is that it doesn't live up to Eno's formulation: in one sense it's “as ignorable as it is interesting,” but it's interesting precisely because of the way in which it’s ignorable. It's easy to forget that albums that work on the level of “mere” functionality are not any less valuable than those that demand attention. It's not flashy, but that kind of ambient finds room in a lot more peoples' lives than we'd think. And every so often, you get a record that is usable in a purely occupational way that rock or rap or experimental or dance music or what have you isn't, but is evocative and satisfying enough that you sometimes put it on just to listen with hushed devotion.
The second effort by the German-based Marsen Jules (née, err, Martin Juhls), Les Fleurs is that sort of record, one where nothing really happens for fifty minutes, one that you could play in a loop for hours without really noticing. And yet, I haven't just been listening to it, I've been playing it on headphones, a process deadly to most ambient music (unless you're trying to nap). As much as I can tune out Les Fleurs and go about my business, upon scrutiny it gently blossoms into a fractured rapture, slightly akin to William Basinski's obsessive repetitions—if he ever decided to go pop.
Well, relatively pop; except for the long, gracefully glazed slide of closer “Oeillet en Delta” the eight tracks here range around the four to six minute mark; each boasts an atmosphere lush enough to make Jon Brion weep; and each unfolds around the listener like a waking dream, turning the air liquid and hazy. Despite the title's evocation of spring Les Fleurs reminds me most of standing in falling snow, watching the flakes spiral down gradually, on one of those winter nights that never quite achieves full dark.
As with a lot of the best ambient, it's sometimes hard to tell exactly what's going on. The closest the liner notes get to clearing things up is to credit various musicians with vibraphone and harp “fragments” on half of the tracks. That's a more fitting choice of phrase than “samples” as these songs feel like single sublime moments refracted into a kind of peaceful flurry. Even when the more conventional shoals of harp are used as on “La Digitale Pourpre,” Les Fleurs doesn't subside into New Age. Its restless creaks and plucks are actually the closest the record comes to sounding harsh.
The kind of single-minded devotion to his sound, songs wrung out of the repetition of gorgeous flecks of melody in exquisitely pristine settings, that Marsen Jules specializes in isn't for everyone; some react to this music with, “Yes, you've made a nice sound... now what?” and in all fairness they have a point. You have to be willing to fall in love with stasis a little to be bewitched by Les Fleurs. If most music is cinema, always moving forward, Marsen Jules is photography, and photography with an exceptional depth of field: The joy and beauty of it isn't in seeing what happens so much as looking (listening) more closely and experiencing what's there more deeply.
Reviewed by: Ian Mathers
Reviewed on: 2006-08-17