here is a remarkably liberating feeling of learning that sometimes music must be approached in a different way than the way than that with which you have approached it before. My first experiences with ambient music were along these lines: “Where is this going?”, “Why?”, and “My...isn’t this great study music?” all come to mind as the common questions that colored my first forays into this consciously slow-moving and little evolving musical genre. Put another way, listening to this in the car on a road-trip is not the best way to stay awake.
Now the Wind-Up Bird haven’t invented this type of music, nor have they perfected it. But, on their self-titled debut for Alone Records, the group has constructed a worthy debut of ambient musings.
The group is composed of two musicians. Jeff Smith, formerly the bassist and singer of Jerome’s Dream, plays the electric guitar. On most tracks, the effects placed on the instrument-and the relatively slow playing by Smith- make the instrument unrecognizable. Instead, the instrument takes on the role of a metronome, in most cases, or the arbiter of quiet repetition and slight improvisation within set melodic constructs. Joseph Grimm, of 33.3, plays a host of instruments within the band. Trombone, pedal steel, guitar, and violin are the ones primarily heard on the debut recording- with a hint of a Fender Rhodes at points.
Released at about the same time as their split EP with the One AM Radio- the tracks are each, in some fashion, reminiscent of “All The Shiny Fishes Are Floating; And All The Dark Fishes Are At The Bottom Of The Sea”, the group’s lone original work on the disc. Unfortunately, the far more engaging work was their remix of One AM Radio entitled “He Waited and Waited, And Now, At Last, In The Stillest Hour Of Night, The Sounds Got Busy Once Again.” Along with the addition of singing, the group added a distinctive stuttered click beat to the proceedings, making the piece an organic synthesis of a variety of elements that became one of the best songs of 2002.
Here, however, the beats and the vocals are gone, and we are left with the textures, which are most engaging in the latter half of the record. The highlight of this latter half is “Till They Touched The Birdbread, Thus Combining Wheat and Chaff.” Here the group combines trombone, a simplistic guitar line, and what sounds like either a marimba or a xylophone. The effect is a hypnotic one and the most beautiful moment of the album, by far. When dealing with such simplistic song structure the addition of interesting sounds to help the listener along is key- and here the Wind-Up Bird succeeds. A slight click undercurrent to the song goes on underneath, barely raising any notice- a subtle reminder that close listening rewards as much as the “aural wallpaper” technique.
And this is the sign of success for an ambient album- being able to ride the divide between a disc that can be listened to as unobtrusive background music or as a slow-moving soundtrack in which every change is a carefully measured move with the greatest of weight attached to it. The Wind-Up Bird does this admirably on many of their tracks on this debut album, yet there is still a large amount of room to improve. Either way, I’ll be listening.