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Function - The Secret Miracle Fountain

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Artist: Function

Album: The Secret Miracle Fountain

Label: Locust

Review date: Mar. 19, 2006

Recorded in 10 different countries with more than 30 musicians over a period of three and a half years, Function's third full-length record is dense, heterogenous and almost impossibly beautiful. At 72 minutes long, and incorporating pristine folk, field recordings, pop melodies, jazz-like bursts of dissonance and sampled world music intervals, The Secret Miracle Fountain is immediately arresting, but initially somewhat hard to grasp.

The connective thread is composer and ringleader Matthew Liam Nicholson. According to his bio, Nicholson began dabbling in sound collage in the early 1990s. A couple of years later, he formed the Golden Lifestyle Band several of whose members – Chris Smith (of FatCat Records) and Pat Ridgewell from Small World Experience, for instance – appear on this record. Function's first album was self-released in Australia in 1998; it was followed by 2003's The Zillionaire-Retarded Speeds of Ordinary Measured Light, which was extravagantly praised by the few, mostly Australian critics who heard it. The Secret Miracle Fountain is, by all accounts, a more ambitious realization of Nicholson's transcendent, world-spanning art, bringing more people, more instruments and more sounds into the process. It is also the first Function record to be widely available outside Australia, and, if there is any justice in the world, the one that will bring this collective the attention it deserves.

The disc starts with "Beloved, Lost to Begin With," a song that paraphrases one of Rainer Maria Rilke's most beautiful poems, "You Who Never Arrived,” a tersely evocative meditation on unrequited love. The song itself is similarly restrained and powerful, its soft-focus vocals underscored by the crackle of fire and subtle guitar notes. Here, Function sounds a lot like Songs of Green Pheasant, but the next song, "The Red Hook Overview," is meatier and less ethereal, bounded by arc-twisting slide notes and wistfully picked electric. The instrumental introduction goes on for nearly two minutes, before Nicolson's high delicate voice comes in. Again, his voice is angelic, but, interestingly, the lyrics more grounded, a bit gritty and sardonic, describing a "lowrider bar" and "A room full of artists all loveless and fey." The song breaks twice between verses, in a muscular, rock-oriented bridge built of drums, bass and guitar.

The Secret Miracle Fountain divides fairly equally into songs and soundscapes. (The more abstract pieces seem to have all been recorded in Fiji for some reason.) "Prayer in Tonal Forest" is the first of these all-instrumental cuts, a minimalist landscape of treated piano, electronic tones and field recordings. There's a crackle at its base, through which we glimpse a soft interplay of tone, reverent in mood, hushed, as you are when you walk through a sunlit woods. A high vibration gains prominence as the piece progresses, still with the same elements, the crackle and tones, underneath it. "Shards,” which comes later in the album, is another of these pieces, almost stereotypically beautiful, in its use of trilling bansuri flutes and temple harps. "Mad Light Obviating Things (Parts 1 & 2),” built with samples from UK electro-acoustic composer Ryan Teague, are full of clear wavering tones rising and falling mysteriously. And "New Music for Bowed Animals" starts with tunes that must have been lifted from a children's cartoon soundtrack, segueing into tranquil medley of blown and bowed notes, their volume rising and falling, the notes and colorations shifting gradually as the piece progresses.

These pieces are intoxicating, free-standing and well worth considering on their own terms rather than as intervals between more structured songs. But even more interesting things happen when experimental elements – improvised music, samples and field recordings – frame what are undeniably pop songs. Consider "Unshaken (Positively Implacable)"; on its surface, the most accessible song on the disc, the one you'd put on a mix tape for a friend who wasn't as adventurous as you'd like. This cut starts with the wash of water and a cascade of impressionistic piano notes, just the sort of heady, free-form mix of sounds that anchors the vocal-less cuts. Suddenly, however, drums emerge and, seconds later, a rising pop melody that you can sing almost immediately. The cut is eight minutes long, incorporating found sounds like crowd noises, a child saying "How are you? You good?" and someone reading "Humpty Dumpty.” Lodged between sweet and fully accessible verses, you'll find a jazz-like interval of dissonant brass notes, each beautiful in its own terms, held until it turns slightly sour. Then there's a shift in tempo and more upbeat mood, and again the pop melody. The words here are important, because I think they capture Nicholson's gnostic philosophy of music in the metaphor of a waterfall (perhaps the Secret Miracle Fountain of the album's title). The song ends with the lyric, "Unshaken – deeply implacable / Utterly happy – transcendental... / Rendered ecstatic, broken, uncouth / Unshaken waterfall / Cannot be consoled / Dancing the world" – and that's exactly how you feel when you listen to it.

By Jennifer Kelly

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