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The Caretaker - A Stairway To the Stars

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Artist: The Caretaker

Album: A Stairway To the Stars

Label: V/Vm Test

Review date: Jul. 9, 2002

My friend/roommate/co-conspirator Danny once told me this story:

At Christmas, a few years back, as he and his family were sitting down to dinner the phone rang abruptly. His father answered, a bit surprised to find the voice on the other end belonging to a friend he had lost contact with for about twenty-five or so years, from back in the days when he worked as a physicist in Sweden. “Bill,” his friend said, “I’m glad I caught you. I just wanted to go over some of the new procedures we set up in the labs so everyone’s on the same page when we get to work tomorrow.”

Danny’s father was dumbfounded and unsure how to proceed. After all, it had been ages since he was either a member of the Swedish workforce or employed in a physics lab. “Jim,” he said, “we haven’t worked together in close to twenty-five years.”

He was met with silence on the other end of the line. “Are you all right, Jim?” he asked.

“No. I don’t think I am.” Joe then hung up the phone, and the family resumed their dinner.

A couple of years after that Bill was in Sweden visiting some family and decided to look up his friend. After hitting a series of dead ends, he finally contacted some family members that filled him in on some unfortunate history: Jim had spent much of the past few years in a vegetative state. Still curious about the mysterious phone call, he pressed on and found out where he was hospitalized and decided to make the trek to visit him. Upon arriving, the doctors scoffed at his story, merely stating that Jim’s periods of lucidity were so few and far between that to think that he had just come to, remembered Bill, and then managed to find his phone number stateside and ring him up was a bit preposterous. Bill was convinced too, and then took one last look at his friend before turning and heading for the door. Before he got out of the room, he heard a faint voice from behind him: “Bill, I want my John Fahey record back soon.”

Bill turned and saw the same motionless body that he had seen moments earlier, but the various doctors and nurses present couldn’t dispute what had happened. Jim had spoken.

The John Fahey record in question had been borrowed in the seventies.

I really wish I understood how memory actually works. From my own perspective, certain situations/events/people/places resonate with particular clarity time and time again, no matter how much the passage of time distances me from them. There are other things that for whatever reasons remain ones for the ages, with distinct textured images replaced merely by faint whispers of emotions, brief snippets that evoke something unnamed from the past. My mind is a cross between the two, trading off snapshots with blurred images, both of which seem as urgent as anything else I try to file away – what one has in clarity the other has in strength of personal importance. I cited the above story as an example of the odd ways in which all of our memories work. At times we are oblivious to things other people remember and see, instead relying on our own conceptions/reconstructions of the past to guide us through the present day’s events. I also spoke of it because the juxtapositions it presents and creates between the past, present, and most importantly, the spaces in between are distinctly similar to those that The Caretaker goes to great lengths to observe and document on his newest disc A Stairway To The Stars, his second offering for the V/Vm Test label. Culled from mutated samples of “forgotten” ballroom classics on the 1930s and 1940s, this is a collection of those very snippets of faded memories and hazy snapshots, ones so powerful and strong in their ability to burn into our minds that not even the passage of time can erase them.

The problem I end up having with a lot of ambient electronic music is that it meanders too much for its own good, with producers too content to allow shifting textures speak, overlooking the importance and the wide variety of possibilities that a greater narrative structure can lend to the music. Thankfully, The Caretaker keeps all of this in mind when creating his tracks. Most of the tracks here explore some already well-worn territory with shifting tones and textures creating dense and atmospheric moods, allowing brief patches of melody to traipse across the background every now and again. But rather than just blatantly ape the Selected Ambient Works II era of Aphex Twin, The Caretaker evokes strong sense of place, tone, and mood with each of his tracks. While “We Cannot Escape The Past”, the album’s opener, dwells a sense of slow motion foreboding and loss, tracks like “Malign Forces of The Occult” are distinctly darker affairs with the tones overloading the pieces to create claustrophobic and eerie soundscapes. This album is soundtrack music in the best possible sense of the term – the tracks create strong images of places, times, and emotions based on the original tracks. They’re inextricably linked to the source material and yet can stand alone as highly evocative pieces of work.

Tracks like “Cloudy, Since You Went Away”, “It’s All Forgotten Now”, and “Robins and Roses”, my personal favorite, take a different approach. Rather than manipulating the original music to the point where it just becomes a blur, the distinct pieces here are foregrounded in the mix, thus giving the tracks an almost ghostly waltz-like feel. At times the source material is presented almost verbatim, but at other times it’s carefully looped and edited to create ambient textures that rely on real songs as much as tones. These tracks here are the real triumph of this album, taking some risks with the original pieces and the particular moods they themselves can convey and ending up with wholly original and new sounds. Elsewhere on the album The Caretaker mines the ballroom classics for familiar drones and low-end rumbles. The only major complaint about these tracks here is that they can get a bit tedious from time to time. Kubrick-esque soundtrack minimalism can be a wonderful and frightening thing, but it gets to be a bit heavy handed with repeated listenings. Even still, the carefully plotted ambience of tracks like “Masquerade Ball”, “Consigned To A Yesterday”, and “On The Edge of Breakdown” work wonderfully evocative pictures into the mind again and again.

The true strength of this album comes from the fact that rather than just conjuring that notion of a forgotten time, The Caretaker builds ballrooms for his tracks, and then populates them with the ghosts of aristocratic dancers of days gone by. The band is somewhere in the back while hallowed spirits wander back forth in slow motion, never breaking stride amidst a hazy ambient atmosphere. The record manages to sustain its overwhelming sense of loss and foreboding throughout the entire disc without ever lapsing into kitsch or obvious sentiment. Simply put, this is one of the most surprisingly strong records I have heard this year, rife with emotion and eerily capable of painting clear pictures and sentiments with each subsequent listen. The tracks seem to become deeper and stronger each time out. It might be hard to take it all in one sitting, but I have heard very few discs as rewarding, intimate, and evocative as this one. What started out as a cursory listen for me a couple of weeks ago has turned into one of my more favorite discs of recent weeks, and one of the better electronic albums you’ll hear this year.

By Michael Crumsho

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