Masayoshi Fujita & Jan Jelinek - "Undercurrent" (Bird, Lake, Objects)
There are some really good albums that are only really good when youíre listening to them without distraction. Compromise your attention, and they will harass and annoy you. You will blame them when you try to grab that metal bowl on top of the oven and burn yourself. That this kind of record fails to make an impression that you can take away with you seems to happen both on purpose and as a matter of course. Jan Jelinekís recent albums have this quality of being excellent under very particular circumstances, ones where the listener is only listening to the music rather than soundtracking some task. These moments probably donít arrive often in most music consumersí lives. He has made the not-uncommon complaint that electronic music is no longer innovative, though his work makes a case for itself quietly. (Leaving open the possibility that its arguments seem whispered precisely because not many people are listening closely.) Bird, Lake, Objects feels accidental and improvised, the sound of two musicians speaking from their discomfort with and distrance from one another around a single mic. That looseness makes it a good vantage point for understanding Jelinekís trajectory from glitch to loops.
That I never got around to downloading Jelinekís previous releases, like Tierbeobachtungen or Textstar back when I had an eMusic subscription was probably a good thing. Iíd regularly come across Jan Jelinek through the siteís recommendations and criticís lists, but nothing I read gave me the sense that getting into him, despite my interest in fellow travelers like Thomas Fehlmann, should be a priority. Those releases might have turned me off to Jelinek at the time: the earlier for being too kitschy-glitchy and the latter for being hookless and hazy. But when, on my last day as an intern for an alt weekly, I found Kosmischer Pitch in my editorís semisecret stash of quality promos, I was really stoked for the introduction. My subsequent attempts to play it in the cafe I worked at at the time are memorable because of how sharply my attention tapered off after the first track, "Universal Band Silhouette." Jelinek may have set listeners up for disappointment by making an album built on loops from krautrock records that sounded less like the trippy mushrooms growing on the tree trunk pictured on the cover and more like the dirt underneath. "Silhouette"Ďs guitar hook kept me engaged as other musty loops slipped by underneath, but the rest of the album was too silty to function as work music.
Itís true that Jelinekís music has fit increasingly poorly into whateverís going on in electronic music since he debuted as Farben in Ď98, one of the flagship projects of the Clicks & Cuts era. What didnít quite make sense for me before this collaboration with the Japanese vibraphonist Masayoshi Fujita is that Jelinekís appeal is that heís willing to fail to make an impression. Initially, itís easier to hear Jelinek avoiding jumping into some well-used electronic producer escape pod ó settling for a sonorous drone or a clinical microrhythm ó than it is to hear the music for what it is. This record is a successful improvisation between electronics and a real-life instrument because Jelinek and Fujita donít take turns taking the lead. As soon as you detect a cluster of vibraphone notes, youíre already hearing Jelinek subtly extending the instrumentís sharp resonances, looping and collaging the long decays. It would be easier to use his live editing and processing to cobble together Fujitaís playing into some warmed-over minimalist patter, but the rhythms here are evasive, to say nothing of melody, but the album has more of the feel of jazz than of ambient.
The album isnít ascetic ó it deliberately does away with the things that would give listeners their bearings within musicís abstractness, but each of the tracks has its own momentum and make for a unified whole. Itís still not something youíd ever like to do the dishes to. At 40 minutes long, it could be music for a Kobo Abe play: ambient jazz thatís moody, yet straightfaced and inscrutable. The appeal of Bird, Lake, Objects is transient and volatile ó I could find no way anticipating if my mood would match the musicís. But since youíre reading this, I probably donít need to tell you thatís precisely its appeal.