Tuesday, October 2, 2012

In Brief #2: Hymns of the Field

For the second, and long-awaited I'm sure, installment of "In Brief" I'm shining a bit of a spotlight on a great little label out of Portland, OR (one of the few places I call home.) Headed by founder and CEO Dylan McConnell, Field Hymns always seems to exude fun and exuberance for the music it releases. While fizzy electro-pop seems to be Field Hymns's forte, some of my favorite releases from the label have been from when it went a little off-script and, thus, Foton, Mattress, Susurrus and White Glove are our subjects today.

Foton - Omega [Field Hymns]
I don't know who this Foton is, but I'd like to. My only possible guess would be that this is another offshoot of Dylan's, although the titles look like Russian (?) but perhaps that's a red herring.
Omega is a pretty great piece of work. Lacking a better term, I started just calling it "something-concrete." It doesn't quite fit into the typical notion of sound-collage/musique-concrete, the vast majority of the material if not all appears to be inorganically (that is electronically) created rather than working with found sounds. That said, it doesn't fit into the "academic synthesizer electronic workshop" field too neatly either--it's a little too vibrant, or energetic shall we say. There are elements of those modes, along with a touch of avant-percussive pitter-patter. There are various fragments of synth--some beautiful, some more in line with 50s sci-fi sound effects--strange filtered guitar passages, synthesized whistling etc. all patched together into a well-paced though decidedly not seamless trip. It's a bizarre world of sound. Often you don't get much more than a glimmer but that's usually enough for these capsules to be absorbed, particularly when Omega morphs into more "symphonic" phrases. A strange synthesized circus number and another grand, almost funereal, piece at the end of the first side are highlights.
While the first side is ostensibly divided into 5 tracks (I can't discern where one ends and one begins--the side seems to be a continuous series of vignettes) the second side is billed as a single piece. It's still similar to the first but there's a noticeable shift in pace, it unfurls much slower and more quietly. It perhaps promises more but maintains it's scaled-back minimalism throughout. One of the more interesting elements of the track is its indulgence into "free" territory, sounding like a sparse jazz ensemble reproduced on synthesizer. In comparison to the first side, it's at once more epic and smaller in scale. My preference veers toward the oddities littering the first side but the extended transience of the second is commendable as well. This is a great little tape and an unsung gem from the year so far.

Mattress - Lonely Souls [Field Hymns]
If you don't know Rex Marshall's music track down his Low Blows LP pronto. Dude's shit is awesome simple as that. The reductive Rolling Stone capsule review would read "Mattress is Nick Cave-meets-Suicide" and while that is true in a number of ways Rex's style is uniquely his own and, plainly said, the guy's one of the best songwriters we have right now.
Lonely Souls marks the second time I've had the pleasure of hearing Rex on cassette, well third if I count his work with his R&B group, The Reservations. Marshall channels his frequent muse Suicide in the fantastic opener "Done All My Time" but does so with a decidedly cosmic bent. A propulsive drum machine hisses while Marshall opens interstellar portals with deep synth throbs. "I am not a member of these times" he croons, how true. "Forget My Name" features live drums by Ethan Jayne (even so they still sound filtered/blasted to hell) but they imbue the track with a certain looseness that keeps the repetition fresh and organic. Also, Rex duets with himself on this track, sweet! "Lied Again" reminds me a little of Blank Dogs, albeit at a lethargic pace, before Mike Sniper stopped caring. Totally unnerving, this has slowly become one of my favorites; the mix sounds inherently unstable, I half expect the floor to drop out at any moment and the drum machine to die, if not Rex himself.
Guitar and bass rear their heads among the the synth-buzz on "Dead Ends" allowing Marshall to work in little keyboard counter-melodies here and there. It's one of the relatively cleaner sounding tracks and still Rex sounds like he's singing from across the room. "Shake Me" edges into some weird, nearly dubstep territory. Incongruous drum machines wobble and trip over each in asynchronous fashion. It catches you off-guard at first but makes perfect sense given Mattress's style.
The quasi-title track "Only Lonely Souls" enters the pantheon of 100% Solid Gold Mattress Hits, joining "Roll Roll Roll," "Church That Shit," "Remember" and "Bad Times" among many others. Rex gets down, unleashing the most grooving piece of work he's ever composed. Mattress has always been catchy in its own special way but Rex seems to be courting pop vibes a little more than usual on this one. It's a good look for him.
I could tell you that all the songs are top notch, but that kinda goes without saying every time the spine reads "Mattress."
This is the darkest, heaviest, nastiest and flat out bassiest release I've heard from Rex. Much of the time, Marshall employs pretty sparse arrangements. And in a way the arrangements on this tape are still minimal: the elements are voice, drum machine, synth, occasionally guitar and guest drums by Ethan Jayne on two tracks. Yet these Mattress songs sound much more immense than any previous ones--Rex's booming voice sounds claustrophobic wedged between mountains of thick synth signals.
The inside of the j-card reads "Low Fidelity... A Mono Recording" so maybe that's the secret to whipping up this monolithic mash.

Susurrus - Susurrus [Field Hymns]
Speaking of monoliths, Dylan McConnell stealthily slipped out a release by his drone alter-ego Susurrus a few months back. This was a left-field smack in the face of the highest order. This is legit DRONE. I was used to bobbing along to McConnell's various playful synth-pop tapes under the Oxykitten and Adderall Canyonly monikers, so learning that this tape was executed by Dylan was a shock. Headphones are recommended if not essential (I suppose a fancy surround-sound system would do nicely as well) as there is a lot of play along the stereo spectrum. And plus, this thing sounds heavy. Not "heavy metal" kind of heavy, I'm talking fat, thick, sounds-like-it-weighs-a-ton heavy.
Organized into two movements (one on each side naturally) this album is orchestrated seamlessly. At its bass, (bad pun, deal with it) there's always some sort of deep tone or throb. The movement's expansion is nearly imperceptible at first. What's particularly great about this is there's a heavy dose of microtonal aesthetics but rather than boring the shit out of you for better or worse, McConnell massages various "musical" features out of his tones without betraying that deep, immovable-object aesthetic.
The second movement has a higher degree of sine wave pitter patter in the midst of subtle but deep tone tunneling. McConnell whips out waves of every form and it's great.
Honestly, I can pick out the minutiae of the different moments and try to give you an idea of what it's like but I'm not getting you any closer to actually hearing it. There's not a ton I can say about this other than this is some really good fucking drone. And I feel it's been some time since I've heard some really good fucking drone (the recent Dull Knife LP is also quite good.) It just feels good to be enveloped again.

White Glove - White Glove [Field Hymns]
White Glove is a bedroom project of Tim Wenzel; consisting of acoustic guitar and muted snare drum, Wenzel weaves snarky tales of trust fund kids, skateboarding, getting beat up by skinheads, having pink eye and also just what Heaven is like.
The tape is chock full of great songs from the start. The opener "Trust Fund Kids" implies that trust fund kids are just like pod people ("they look like me and you/but they got us fooled") Furthering the pod people implication, the previously skeptical Wenzel quickly succumbs to wishing he was a trust fund kid--he'd buy all his friends pizza, build a super-tight spine ramp, buy beer and a bunch of tapes and ultimately "make financial mistakes."
"High Bike" is a soft ballad about  the silly high bikes some people ride around Portland. "Jesse" is a sort of re-imagining of "Jesse's Girl"--it's not a cover, and musically doesn't share any ground with Rick Springfield's "classic"--but it is about Jesse's girl who "swings both ways." "Too Young" is a sardonic ode to young love, and a possible sequel to "Jesse" (?)
My hands down favorite is "Skate Heaven," Wenzel's detailed description of the new skate park that was just built in Heaven. Wenzel notes that it "sounds like a super heck-a fun" and "You don't have to wear full pads/You don't have go with mom and dad/You don't have to pay any money" although he notes the one rule: "If you wanna go you gotta die... and go to heaven." However, Heaven is not all sunshine and skate ramps, Wenzel admits "the one thing that kinda sucks is it's always cloudy"
To those cynics out there who might ask: even if there is a "Heaven," why would there be a skate park there? Well, the answer my friends is simple: "They're trying to get more people in heaven/that's why they built a skate park and a 7-Eleven"
 The track perfectly culminates in a hallelujah chorus by the "skateboarding angels" who "ride the sky." It's a great song; one that has earned many repeated listens.
"Sober" whips out the electric guitar and it's actually a pretty good fit for White Glove shenanigans--I wouldn't mind seeing Wenzel play these songs with a sloppy, blown out punk band.
The bottom line is the tape is a lot of fun. You like fun right?

You can hit up Field Hymns to grab these suckers. And you probably should.

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