The aesthetics of avant-leaning “slow” music are complex and
tricky. You’re going for transcendence, often through ambiance, minimalism and
drone, yet you’re also trying to be distinctive and individualistic. If your
sound is too spare or acoustic, it risks becoming aural wallpaper –
fundamentally conservative New Age music. Yet if you layer on studio wizardry
to build texture and edge, you risk being just another “dream pop” act, a
recognizable and well-worn niche. Another problem for the artist is what to do
about vocals – if too vividly expressive, either because of upfront singing or
overly detailed lyrics, they spoil the overall aura. But if too restrained, it
sounds enervated and passive…and instantly forgettable.
It’s a wonder, really, given how daunting it is to add
anything meaningful to what’s already out there, that anyone still tries it.
Yet if it works, it’s just so damn beautiful – sorrowful yet blissful, timelessly
gorgeous, contemplative music that blows away all the crass and contrivance of
so much of the commercial alternative-rock marketplace. Yet at the same time,
it is itself a new statement and, broadly speaking, “pop music.”
Benoit Pioulard and Rafael Anton Irisarri, recording under
the name Orcas, have a new self-titled album that is largely successful at
being avant-slow but still dynamic. Pioulard (an American
singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist whose actual name is Thomas Meluch and
who has recorded prolifically for the past decade) and Irisarri (an American
manipulator who has done remixes for rock groups) created Orcas after first
collaborating on a version of Broadcast’s “Until Then” and liking the results.
They did it in memory of Trish Keenan, Broadcast’s vocalist who died last year.
“Until Then” is on the album – the only cover – and is a
good indication of how talented these two are at putting just enough structure
on their drifting, ethereal arrangements to keep them from floating away. On
it, Pioulard’s piano-key notes lead and direct his quietly determined, clear
voice through the melancholy song’s darkness to another place, maybe a better
one and maybe not. Textured electronic white noise builds up and then drops
back, prompting relief or
disappointment for the listener.
On “I Saw My Echo,” a pulsing, repetitive electronic crackle
– pure minimalism – leads into a ghostly piano figure and then retreats. In a
high, gentle voice, as an acoustic guitar enters, Pioulard sings the
bittersweet melody just this side of clarity. You find yourself leaning into
the mystery of the imagery, getting just enough of it to sense the importance
of the words as they come in and out of hearing range. Guest Simon Scott’s
treatments create a choral effect, letting the song slowly bloom outward until
it reverses itself to fade away.
“Pallor Cedes,” the album opener, has forebodingly bluesy,
isolated electric guitar – the scratchy sound makes one wonder if it’s a sample
of Junior Kimbrough – leading into Pioulard’s multitracked vocal. His words
“like coming out for air” set the tone – there’s something both positive yet
apprehensive in his intonation. In the wispily introspective “Arrow Drawn,”
which has enough “live” acoustic guitar to conjure a Nick Drake or John Martyn
song, Pioulard lets the melody’s fragile, eerie loveliness build to the
denouement “I never cared about you, really.” The song echoes and slightly
quivers with its sense of heartbreak.
always conquer all the problems that beset quiet, slow albums reaching for
artistic profundity – the listener tends to tune out when it become too much of
an aural wash for the voice to wade through. That happens on “Carrion.” But the
preponderance of the material here creates its own world, on its own terms, and
beckons you to go inside. And you will.
DOWNLOAD: “Arrow Drawn,” “Until Then” STEVEN ROSEN