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Eluvium - Similies

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Artist: Eluvium

Album: Similies

Label: Temporary Residence

Review date: Feb. 12, 2010

"Language and image, each trespassing in the other’s house, secrete disquieting disjunctions, conundrums, circularities.” This quote from filmmaker Hollis Frampton is something of a thesis statement for his greater body of work, which deals in relationships between the visual and the verbal. Needless to say, there’s a major co-dependency in the relationship between the two in Frampton’s view. And on first listen to the newest Eluvium record, these same tensions manifest themselves in a similar fashion between verbal and nonverbal sound. Which often becomes a proxy for the relationship between pop and abstract songs, respectively.

Initial impressions of Eluvium’s Similes give the distinct feeling that this should be a major sea change. Last year’s comprehensive and immaculately packaged Life Through Bombardment box set seems like a scrapbook of Matthew Robert Cooper’s career to that point. You could also argue for something even more formal, maybe a history book of the times before Cooper bucked the verse-chorus-verse hegemony and kept things in a constantly suspended state. To employ a metaphor, Similes, with its introduction of drums, song structure, and Cooper’s voice, would be a shot heard ‘round the world.

Vocals where they never were before is always startling enough for familiar listeners and critics that it’s the first thing that gets mentioned. It also makes for a convenient artificial phrasing break, something I’m pretty obviously taking advantage of. What’s more notable, and important, though, are the continuities present here. Not just in instrumentation and mood, but also in those things’ presence in Cooper’s newest weapon: words.

In some cases, it makes dramatic exercises easier. The purely instrumental requires its abstract sentences to be lucid and obvious, as they’re the main unit. A break in speech, however, creates a void that, when filled with impactful punctuation by a piano or the like, is clear and remarkable. Such gestures aren’t lazy, per se, but fairly typical, even as they’re used to gorgeous effect on “The Motion Makes Me Last.” Cooper’s demure and appropriately drone-y voice becomes the focal point as it ebbs and flows over the underlying piano. When he drops out, the piano solo steps in. It’s a gorgeous call and response, but even referring to the piano’s presence in an Eluvium song is a markedly different use than ever before.

The focus on Cooper’s vocal presence also has the tendency to affect perception of songs that would be considered more traditional. “In Culmination,” for example, vibrates in place for nearly three minutes in one of the strongest and densest compositions on Similes. And closer “Cease to Know” is an epic in the classical Eluvium sense of things. But butting up against the newer, poppier fare, it’s too easy to see them as not fully formed or just sketches.

The most notable songs are not the memorable ballads that begin the record, but the ones that successfully obfuscate the pop/abstract boundary that Eluvium is pressing up against more than ever. “Weird Creatures” begins as a fragmented baroque piece that continuously loops back on itself. Vocals come in, but this time not as the focal point. The general flow of the song is merely augmented by the words’ presence. Cooper becomes fully integrated into the overall sonic weave with his voice-as-instrument. It’s less a compromise between the two modes at work on Similes and more an actual, viable middle path.

Regardless of explicit intention, the newest incarnation of Eluvium’s sound is going to find itself in the middle of a debate around language. And from most people’s standpoints, it’s going to be one that supports the power of words. “For Frampton, the development of verbal skills doesn’t destroy visual innocence; it releases the child from the prison of ignorance and indoctrination,” Scott MacDonald writes about Frampton’s Zorns Lemma. Which is true: Frampton’s films make the point that the ability to describe what goes on around us gives us newfound understanding of the images with which we’re confronted. Similes seems to support this worldview from a musical perspective. Songs built in a more traditional structure become dominant here. The strange textural enjambments feel increasingly out of place. They’ve ceded their power … to pop songs.

By Evan Hanlon

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