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Nurse With Wound - Drunk with the Old Man of the Mountains

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Artist: Nurse With Wound

Album: Drunk with the Old Man of the Mountains

Label: Jnana

Review date: Feb. 25, 2005

Most listeners are fairly conversant in the fundamental tactics of tape collage. There are the telltale gestures of backwards playback, disruptive juxtapositions, the use of sounds that are either already contextualized or simply abstracted in a new framework, and perhaps, include a resultant suggestive narrative structure. These given methods, coupled with some given audio effects (EQ manipulation, reverb, etc.), essentially make the manipulation of recorded sounds the most immediately accessible, conceivably unavoidable, contemporary approach to music making. Practiced by radio DJs, pop musicians, and preschoolers who attend progressive liberal learning institutions, tape collage, or some modernized derivation, is the most common musical currency circulating.

Stephen Stapleton of Nurse With Wound enters this continuing story somewhere in the middle. The first Nurse With Wound experiments don't even require actual manipulation of tape. In fact the great stride made with Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table.. is that Stapleton is able to visualize collage tactics with improvised, instant sound: a theme he returns to from time to time due to its correlation with the automatic processes practiced by his aesthetic forefathers.

The very nature of tape collage aligns its practitioners with the aesthetics presented in Surrealism and Dadaism. It certainly predates Stapleton. From the first examples of Musique Concrete that imbue inanimate objects with human rhythmic and musical qualities, to the fact that the tape itself is a grotesque animation of otherwise dead sounds, the psychic and sensory distortion that tape collage instigates seems to be an intrinsic byproduct of the medium.

Stapleton, rather than being an untouchable innovator, might be better viewed as an incredibly skilled popularizer, not only perpetually producing focused and consistent work, but also working in a self-created lineage that while not completely without hierarchy, emphasizes the overlap between popular and experimental music forms. Stapleton's body of work has become singled out, over time, as exemplary and definitive, arguably the longest standing music career built around a shared pantheon with the Surrealist artists.

Of course, much of this well-known reputation is more legendary than present today. The most revered period of Stapleton's fervent productivity has been somewhat difficult to track down in the US in recent years. Career-definitive records like Homotopy to Marie have been out-of-print for years, and when released were only available as expensive British imports. The first archival reissue in quite some time, Drunk With the Old Man of the Mountains serves as something of Stapleton calling card. Drunk is a piecemeal collection of smaller, high quality mid-80s Nurse With Wound pieces. Drunk is removed from NWW's steady, album-long thematically-unified excursions, but this is precisely the strength of the collection. These pieces stand completely on their own, untangled from the heavy mythological complexities of Stapleton's LP-length meditations.

Drunk with the Old Man of the Mountains was compiled around the same time as Stapleton's other b-side clearinghouse, Automating Vol. 1, though Drunk is a decidedly more consistent affair. The pieces presented here showcase Stapleton's natural narrative inclinations and exhibit a skewed musical sense not hindered as much by some of his more "gothic" inclinations. Especially strong in this regard is the opening "Mourning Smile" piece, exceptional in its playfulness and perverse cheerfulness. It plays with a sinister church organ redolent of old vampire horror movies, but quickly dismantles the listener's expectations with ragtime motifs.

The following piece, "Swamp Rat" places a slightly goofy rhythmic vamp in the foreground, building on it with jagged guitar skronk, panned giggles, and a manipulated choir that, not for the first time, submerged in a din of reverb, lends Stapleton his general ambience. Kazoos crop up, the piece breaks up, giggles become more prominent. The whole compilation generally gravitates towards the slaphappy and offbeat, decidedly less disturbed and morose than some of Stapleton's other recordings, and perhaps more creatively liberating to Stapleton because of it.

"Sheela-Na-Gig" is a little bit more ghoulish. A pitch-shifted wailing lingers for about five minutes. It serves as a nice segue into the second half of the album, which, while still very much in the playful vein, takes a slightly more lethargic tone. "Astral Dustbin Dirge" from the Homotopy for Marie album fits nicely with the overall piercing drunkenness of the album, and in fact, for a split-second seems to quote "Swamp Rat".. Beginning with vague pitched snores that abruptly lapse into a dream state of orgasms and car accidents, this is one of Stapleton's strongest, most visually evocative pieces, showing not only his mastery of culturally-loaded sound sources, but his honed cinematic attention to narrative editing. It's frenzied, uses the general motion and jump-cuts that are stock-in-trade, yet this piece especially emphasizes Stapleton's knack for developing an economy of sounds that never stoops to disingenuous irony or cheap parlor tricks.

"Shattering Man Falling" is a live-in-concept performance by Stapleton and it's slightly more static and organic than the other pieces included as a result. It concludes with an arrhythmic heartbeat, conceptually unifying it with the staggering rhythms of "Swamp Rat" and "Mourning Smile." Despite the albums slap-dash composition of smaller periods over a several year range of time, Stapleton's acute ear has assembled a very coherent album in Drunk with the Old Man of the Mountains, it's effective both as a great introduction to Nurse With Wound and as a one-sitting listen. While longtime fans might balk at the lack of album-length focused cogency, it would be a great overlook to miss the individual pieces on this album.

By Matt Wellins

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