Handbook for Mortals traffics in the almost-real, the detritus of regular life wrapped in luminous clouds, a drift of melody and meaning that floats just out of grasp. Tremulous clarinet, found sound, guitar and piano trail off leaving you to wonder if you heard them, dreamed them or just remembered them. Even the most familiarly structured bits – the eerie recreation of Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” for instance – are spectral and ineffable. The most abrasive sounds, a squall of detuned saxophone, the blister of distorted guitar, come shrouded in sepia-colored reminiscence.
Letha Rodman-Melchior has been experimenting with field recordings and sonic textures for some time now, most often under the name Tretetam and frequently on hard-to-find CDR and cassette releases. This is her first album on vinyl, the first to get relatively wide release and a very fine way to make her acquaintance.
Rodman-Melchior (yes, she’s married to Dan Melchior) seems preoccupied with water on this 11-cut release, naming seven of her pieces after liquid landmarks (that’s four seas with two in Latin , a bay, a marsh and a lake). And yes, there is a dream-like, underwater quality to the sounds she presents, whether the distant shimmer of piano, the muted racket of children at play or even, in one case, a commercial for a hair salon. You could imagine these tracks as sea-covered ruins, the ordinary noise of human beings stopped in mid-sentence, the whole of life subsumed in sparkling, silent clarity. “Marsh of Sleep,” particularly, has this weird noisy serenity, as the roar of car engines, the clamor of children, the diffident commentary of piano is alternately covered and uncovered by a whistling wind-tunnel sounds.
Not that it’s all dream and drift. “Foaming Sea” is a whimsical wind-up toy of a song that lurches to life on a toy keyboard riff. And “Suess-A” samples a news readers and people-on-the-street talking about the surprise of an earthquake in North Carolina. As the voices fade to indefinite chatter, a ghostly choir of denatured voices come in, hymn-like, female, tinged with country folk, like faith amid absurdity, the sublime in mucky confusion.
This is quite a beautiful album, grounded in the day-to-day, but transfused with spirituality. It is, perhaps, worth mentioning that Rodman-Melchior made it while very ill – and that she is still struggling with cancer and cancer treatment. Without trying to speak for her, or to guess how her experience has shaped this music, I do notice a preciousness in these sounds, as if they have been collected and preserved against loss, as if tape and composition was employed to take the place of memory. It is a very sad album, but uplifting too. Buying it may even help a little, since all proceeds from sales will go to Rodman-Melchior Cancer Fund.
Download: “Marsh of Sleep” “Send in the Clowns” “Foaming Sea”