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Howard Stelzer and Jason Talbot - Songs

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Artist: Howard Stelzer and Jason Talbot

Album: Songs

Label: Intransitive

Review date: Sep. 11, 2003

Howard Stelzer and Jason Talbot are Boston-based musicians whose work is based around silence as much as sound. Stelzer also plays with Bhob Rainey’s BSC. So you might think that Stelzer and Talbot’s music comes from the nmperign/Keith Rowe/Günter Müller school of improv, where subtlety earns the best grades. You’d be wrong.

Pauses are also often used in nmperign’s music, but those pauses complement sounds that are often barely audible themselves; the occasional loud, rude noise feels subversive because of everything else that is – or isn’t – going on. For Stelzer and Talbot, on the other hand, pause is a weapon, and subversion is the norm, not a change from it. The goal of Songs is disorientation – play it while you’re doing something else, and you might think the volume’s too low, until an eardrum-bursting noise comes out of nowhere. Listening to it loud in headphones can almost be painful.

Still, this isn't Merzbow: Songs is a difficult listen because of the pauses between the noises, not because of the sounds themselves, which mostly consist of disembodied turntable scratches and backwards tape loops. Good luck figuring out what the sources of Stelzer and Talbot's sounds are, though. As Michael Bullock points out in the liner notes, songs are evocative and ultimately nostalgic. They evoke times, places, and, perhaps most importantly, other songs. And turntables and tape loops can be more concretely evocative than most other instruments, since they offer a direct path to other songs. Clearly, however, Stelzer and Talbot have no interest in using their instruments that way.

So does Songs have songs? No, probably not – Songs sounds the best when the listener needs an antidote to songs. Songs offers a way to clear your head. It's noise, distanced from the network of associations songs depend on. Stelzer and Talbot aren't the first to make a record that works this way. They're not even the first to raise the issues of what qualifies as a song, and of the nature of the relationship between noise and songs. But if your listening habits have gotten into a rut, Songs will disrupt them nicely.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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