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Cul De Sac - ECIM

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Artist: Cul De Sac

Album: ECIM

Label: Strange Attractors Audio House

Review date: Oct. 31, 2006

Are we in some kind of post-rock backlash?

It’s kind of hard not to see the general stokedness surrounding Jim O’Rourke’s departure from Sonic Youth and the acclaim for the pared-down Rather Ripped as the final nail in post-rock’s coffin. It’s also difficult to not want to fit the canonization of post-punk and no-wave that’s gone on over the last five or so years into the narrative of these movements themselves: did Black Dice invoke Throbbing Gristle’s moments of cold-ass Krautiness and the James Chance’s confrontational antics to drive out the piety that surrounded even relatively aggro bands like A Minor Forest?

Appropriately enough, Simon Reyolds, whose excellent Rip It Up and Start Again traces out the entropic post-punk landscape, is also the critic credited with coining the term ‘post-rock’ to describe the music of Bark Psychosis.

Cul de Sac is perhaps the first American band to elicit the epithet, which seems to have come to signify, like prog before it, empty technical ability and self-involved academicism. ECIM was the group’s first LP – released in 1991 on Rough Trade in the UK and Cappella in the US – might prompt listeners (like myself) whose musical education is and has been aided and abetted by the Internet to engage in a session of ‘spot the undigested influence.’ The locked-in Jaki Leibezeit drumming on album opener and statement of purpose “Death Kit Train”; the Pere Ubu synth gurgle that churns along with the mighty “Homunculus”; the pinwheeling Fahey-isms of, um, the cover of the Takoma Park founder’s “The Portland Cement Factory at Monolith, California.”

But, as Byron Coley reminds in his contribution to this reissue’s liner notes, having access to this type of music depended not on SoulSeek but on personal contact, a thought that’s surprisingly sobering. At the time of its release, ECIM was an anomaly; in the 15 intervening years, the reputation of Slint’s Spiderland, released the same year, would occlude the audacity of Cul de Sac’s debut. One reason for this is that ECIM lacks the kind of emotional accessibility and understatement that makes Spiderland difficult to listen to alone in the dark. This isn’t to say that the album lacks any emotive resonance: crashing through the gate with “Death Kit Train,” the band manifests a disorienting energy; it’s only after things have settled into a recognizable pattern – somewhere around the three-minute mark – that the listener’s historical imagination begins to feebly kick in. As the album progresses, though, it may take a substantial effort for listeners to get past superficial points of reference and hear the album as anything but a bunch of too-smart-for-their-own-good men throwing themselves into their favorite records.

This is doubtless the album’s greatest strength and weakness – they all seem to be listening to themselves through their influences in ways just different enough to give the music a sense of tentative compromise. There are moments when the small degrees of difference make a difference: the eerie “Nico’s Dream” feels like the aural equivalent of lying down on a wet lawn at night – a serenity that’s also deeply uncomfortable.

It’s telling that ECIM demands a fair amount of patience and diligence for contemporary listeners; it’s a quality that’s equally attributed to the ways of listening that have developed in the intervening time. It’s a document of close listening, and one that requires close listening in turn. It’s also a powerful reminder of the fact that the post-rock designation cuts across a large swath of music, extending well beyond the chamber theatrics and stubble-stroke of third-wave Louisvillecore.

The challenge, however, is finding a way to negotiate between listening to the music in context and appreciating it for the unique affects it produces. It’s an interesting choice to reissue the record now, outlining as it does not a mythologized ‘scene’ but an approach to music-making that’s humble, deliberate, crafstmanlike, and willing to take its own sweet damn time to make its point.

By Brandon Bussolini

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