Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Muse in Music review of N&L

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We're well aware that N&L needs its time to get into people's heads as well as today Time is something we always seems to lack. We do appreciate honesty and do think this review is filled with it...

TMIM reviews: Numbers & Letters, by Joxfield ProjeXNovember 23, 2010 | by Fred

From the land of Ikea, the Stockholm Palace, and Dolph Lundgren comes something truly massive. Joxfield ProjeX has just issued Numbers & Letters, its second 3-disc set in four years. Clocking in at 148 minutes and 24 tracks, this resembles Aunt Jude’s vegan Christmas as much as it does a record release: you’ll love some of it, you’ll hate some, and while it’s probably all really good for you, there will be leftovers for days.

Joxfield ProjeX is Stefan Ek and Janne Andersson. Friends for nearly 50 years, Ek and Andersson traded in improvised music in the late 60s and early 70s, and then fell under the radar from 1975 until 2005. After returning from extended hiatus, their output has been magnificent, at least in terms of quantity. In 2005 alone they issued a double CDR, a single CDR, and a live disc. They tendered their first 3-CDR release in 2006, at least five different releases in 2009, and a rarities collection named, inevitably, Smorgasbord in October 2010. Readers visiting their Discogs page will find the discography to be hopelessly out of date. Ek and Andersson (from here it’s “Oax” and “Yan”, their stage names) are too busy making netlabel music to bother with keeping up the books. The reader can be forgiven for asking if, at such an exhausting level of output, any of it is worth hearing.

The answer is yes, absolutely.

Disc A is titled Abstract Numbers. After a few false starts — extended keyboard and guitar jam sessions, lengthy prog-rock lessons, free-form jazz’ish, flangers set to 11 — the pot starts simmering with “Computer 2,” the last of an apparent triptych, starting with “Computer 8″ and continuing with “Computer 7.” It is an entrancing, mid-tempo ambient piece, awash with low-register synth, a slightly eastern accent and a spy movie finish. This is a good start, if only in geological terms. “Balinesean Jig” appears to be just that, a fast, African-inspired percussion rhythm atop a brief exhibition of distorted guitar chops. At under a minute, the song is far too short to leave any kind of a mark, but the following track is not. “For a Rainy Day Part 1″ is downright creepy: a complete remix of cyberpunk novelist Kenji Siratori’s “Double Bind.” The original work is noisy, admonishing and carnivalesque, in which an urgent spoken word track blankets a sparse cat-on-the-piano arrangement and electronic tinkering. The compressed, staccato, reverberating vocal work is well-served here in its industrial retrofit: processed and harsh noise, samples and feedback, the occasional squawk of guitar and flute. Devoid of melody or rhythm, it seems an odd choice for this otherwise cheery pair, but by all means it works as a one-time fix.

In other hands, “For a Rainy Day Part 1″ would have closed Disc A, but Oax and Yan opt wisely instead for a nine-minute rave. “The Conquer of TFD” is indisputably a dance track, or better yet a 140bpm treadmill run, going nowhere but going there briskly, thankfully kinetic and tangible, after nearly 40 minutes of precisely the opposite. The artsy and dissonant cello work of the final seconds is a deft touch, and a lovely one.

Discs B and C are titled, respectively, Concrete Letters A-M and Concrete Letters N-Z. The album titles prompt the listener to expect a discernible shift, a move beyond the esoteric number theory to something a bit more literal and grounded. But with such a wide-angle lens — two dozen tracks, six minute durations on average, many as long eight minutes or more — it is nearly impossible to divine any kind of course correction here. Dotted across all of Numbers & Letters are the progressive cartoon fancies of Ozric Tentacles, the crafty axeslinging of King Crimson, and the physical, sometimes frantic saxophone work of a David Lynch picture. Indeed, Concrete Letters A-M resumes exactly where Abstract Numbers left off, with six bonus minutes of house music (“In the Garden of Eden”). It seems that the central metaphor of this release is “more!”

After a second, not quite as unnerving appearance by Siratori, Concrete Letters A-M takes a fun turn with “The First Day.” The uptempo, thumping percussion and the Jews harp silliness put this reviewer to grinning like an idiot. Next, after so much emphasis on guitar and electronics, it is the drum machine that is at last given some space to breathe. Enter Geoff Leigh’s flute solo; even after 35 years, Oax and Yan hang on to their flair for improvisation. “Sanity Check” is a convincing sitar and tanpura day trip, although the song title won’t fool anyone. Disc B closes with “Dragons Fly In the Night,” where a public access channel intro and absurd Vlad the Impaler organ riff dovetail straight into a deadpan rock delivery, and conclude with all of the brass of a Terrence Trent D’Arby bit. That’s the thing about eight-minute tracks: R&B can share lodging with almost anything, as long as the songwriters mind their feng shui.

Sadly, Disc C could practically have been discarded altogether, and giving microphone time to the sort of tracks that failed Discs A and B. Where the path from Abstract Numbers to Concrete Letters A-M was obscured, a clear transition between those the last two albums sits in plain view. Here the drum beats level off, the textures dry up, and the ubiquitous improv begins strangling the craftsmanship. The finest track here is “Mind the Gap,” although by now the album has already traveled to central Asia once — for “Sanity Check” — and with much more impressive results. The listener is all but burned out on the instruction video guitar, the dazzling keyboard work, and the perambulating song structures. The tracklist even reprises the “Computer” series (numbered six, this one brings the grand total to four). By now the thing has become a lazy composition, with an uninspired drum beat and poorly-chosen synthesizer tones. To quote one of these last, flagging songs, “The Entropy is Strong.”

You have to love Joxfield, both as a musical source and as a pair of nice guys: their humor, their good nature, their unbelievable output. But Numbers & Letters is simply too long. A 148-minute opus may have a place in experimental music, but the more-is-more ethic done this way is a disservice to the listener (the interested reader might peruse their discography for one of the shorter works, say Shimmering/Mah No 1). As a collection of singles, Numbers & Letters is a success: it is a rare find indeed, to come upon a dozen tenable songs as diverse as “For a Rainy Day Part 1,” “The First Day,” and “Sanity Check.” It is frustrating, then, that the songwriters could not bring themselves to edit. Anything.

This 3-disc collection is perhaps just as valuable as a hub for discovering other talent: just look at the contributors’ list. Kenji Siratori’s collaboration with Joxfield — and with other musicians — looks quite promising, and his debut novel sounds lively (“acclaimed by David Bowie,” the copy keeps saying). At first glance, the music of cellist Sakamoto Hiromichi is moving and intelligent. Conversely, aficionados of harsh industrial noise might want to look up Churner, who makes a cameo appearance in “The Conquer of TFD.”

So Numbers & Letters is overfed, and not terribly concerned about diet or exercise. Nevertheless, it has a wardrobe full of skinny jeans, and they all make for fantastic playlists. Remember: this is netlabel music. It won’t cost you anything but your time: 6.5/10

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